June 17, 2023
What does Earth’s solar system have in common with the recyclability of our solar power systems? They both rank just “one star.”
Why are solar panels optimistic? Because they keep their “sunny side up.”
All jokes aside, recycling and disposal options for solar panels have been terrible worldwide, but locally, we have seen recent, slight improvements. With continued improvement, we can be optimistic about meeting the need for a massive increase in recycling options over the next five years.
Recycling will be necessary, not just for the usual resource conservation reasons. In the case of most solar photovoltaic panels, disposal is simply not a legal option.
The California Department of Toxic Substances Control, noting contents such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium and silver, developed regulations originally requiring handlers of discarded solar panels to “perform a hazardous waste determination” on all incoming units.
Until 2020, that was the end of the regulation. But in a significant improvement making transportation and storage far easier, the rules now include a permissive statement.
Generators may “assume” a discarded photovoltaic module is hazardous without making a hazardous waste determination and “manage the waste as universal waste,” according to Arti Lal, an environmental scientist with CalRecycle, the state recycling agency. The term “universal waste” is used for electronics and similar items, with rules far less stringent than those required for hazardous waste.
Clean Earth, a contractor to the county of Ventura, provides state-compliant recycling services for panels dropped off at household hazardous waste collection events open only to residents of Fillmore, Ojai, Santa Paula and the areas outside cities. Since July of last year, Clean Earth collected 28 panels from these events.
Local disposal facilities, such as the Simi Valley and Toland Road landfills, do not accept panels. But other facilities are developing policies, procedures and charges for eventual acceptance.
Panel recycling will likely require significant charges, since the cost greatly exceeds the value of recoverable silver, glass and silicon. This cost can be seen most clearly at the Chiquita Canyon Landfill near Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County. Scalehouse staff there said the landfill accepts panels but recovers only the cost of what it pays a contractor to collect for recycling, charging $35 per panel and limiting deliveries to two per load.
For now, the best option is to avoid disposal. If your panels aren’t producing as much energy as they once did, first try simple options such as cleaning.
Wayne Pendrey, a solar installer and consultant, says a next low-cost step could be to examine inverters. Inverters last only about 15 years and some solar panels are set up with inverters on each panel. So it’s
possible some of your panels are still in good condition but aren’t adding to your system’s overall output. Fixing those inverters could boost output.
Most panels are warrantied for more than 20 years and are expected to decline in performance less than 0.5% per year, Pendrey said. In 20 years, they should produce energy at about 90% of their original performance. If your panels produce less, you may be protected by a warranty, and the original installation company may be obligated to fix, replace, refund or provide a prorated refund.
Finally, consider reuse. Add to, rather than replace, your existing panels, as I did last month. If you don’t have sufficient roof space, work with a contractor who may be able to arrange for reuse. Due to changes in fire codes and improvements in fire ratings of new panels, old panels may not be acceptable for new-home rooftop installations, but some contractors occasionally find reuses in ground-based installations or on outbuildings.
“Solar stewardship” is one potential solution to increase recycling and reuse options for panels. A fee-based system of extended producer responsibility would add cost to the purchase of panels. Funds collected would subsidize recycling. As promoted by the California Product Stewardship Council, the state of Washington adopted such legislation in 2017.
David Goldstein, an environmental resource analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency, can be reached at 805-658-4312 or email@example.com.