Solar Panel Recycling: What’s the Plan?

Filed in Sustainability and Green Building by on December 29, 2020 4 Comments

Solar energy is now cheaper than coal and natural gas in most nations, according to an October 2020 report from the International Energy Agency. Decreasing costs for solar photovoltaics (PV), along with efforts to minimize non-hardware costs, help explain the increased solar capacity coming online to the electric grid.

But as solar continues to grow, in addition to the existing solar PV capacity in the United States, those panels will eventually reach the end of their useful life. What will happen then?

Most panels last between 25 and 30 years, with many manufacturers providing 20- to 25-year warranties. According to a National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study, the average degradation rate for solar panels is .8% per year, with newer panels having a .5% annual decline. In other words, the amount of energy an array can be expected to produce in 20 years will be about 90% (assuming a .5% decline) of what it produced when it was first installed. Although 30-plus years may seem like a long time, some panels installed by early adopters might be ready to come down soon.

The industry will need to start thinking about waste management solutions. Figuring out the most cost-effective way to deconstruct and recycle solar panels, which comprises glass, metal and silicon wafers, is still a question for the industry, as many are made with adhesives that can be difficult to remove. Although one solar company already has a module recycling program, limited facilities exist, and that time to decommission panels will be here before we know it. One new California regulation recently re-classified solar PV panels as universal waste, which could make panel recycling easier. That category changes how long the panels can be held onsite before being discarded and has fewer requirements for hazardous material testing.

As more builders consider installing solar PV, understanding the full life cycle for major components such as panels and inverters will become increasingly important, given the sheer amount of equipment being installed.

Want to learn more about solar PV? NAHB’s solar toolkit for builders may be able to help you navigate the world of solar on your new construction homes.

To stay current on the high-performance residential building sector with tips on water efficiency, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and other building science strategies, follow NAHB’s Sustainability and Green Building team on Twitter.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Thank you for the informative article. It sure helps for decision making whether to install solar or not.

  2. Armando Cobo says:

    Great to show PV recycle is being developed at +90% recoverable material rates, and should become the standard in the industry. Many folks that installed PV in the 70’s, are receiving continued good benefit, and I believe we can see good production into the 40-50 year range.
    Other ways to look at solar efficiency:
    1. PV panels installed in New England are 30-50% less effective than panels installed in the Southwest, and yet, that hasn’t stopped folks in NE from installing these systems. Search for Solar Irradiance Map at NREL.
    2. PV panels produce about 20-40% less electricity if installed facing East or West vs. South.
    3. PV panel tilt makes huge different just as well in maximum efficiency.
    The one think is common denominator, no matter where and how PV panels are installed, the biggest return on investment is a tight building envelope and efficient systems in the house. This is where Builders should concentrate their efforts before spending money on renewables.

  3. Why are we not acking the same questions about big screen TVs? They are essentially of the same constructions, and there are far more of them out there. The solar panels create energy over their lifetimes, while the TVs just use energy. We need to be asking the right questions, or we will not get the right answers!

  4. sonal gupta says:

    60 million tons of waste PV panels lie in the garbage dumps by 2050; because all PV cells contain a certain amount of toxic substances, that can be an unsustainable way to get energy. quint

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