Solar energy panels can be recycled, but most end up in landfills. How to handle broken or older panels in Illinois is a challenge that takes a statewide collaboration to figure out, according to Jennifer Martin, coordinator of the Solar Module Recycling Initiative at the University of Illinois’ Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC).
Solar modules used at solar energy farms and in homes are made from different technologies, all with valuable, recoverable, recyclable materials. No national regulations exist on how to discard panels, but some may contain toxic compounds such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead that can leach into the environment if landfilled.
In addition, the large size of solar panels can potentially fill up landfill sites quickly.
Given that solar power is the fastest growing energy source nationwide, and with a lifespan of 25 to 30 years, solar panels installed in the 2000s and before will soon need to be replaced. Also, panels that are broken in shipping or damaged by storms will be disposed of.
With around 360,000 modules currently installed in Illinois, an additional 6 million solar panels will be installed in Illinois by 2025, posing a significant solid waste problem by mid-century.
“Solar energy is a relatively new industry in the Midwest,” Martin said. “There are many factors that make it difficult to predict the number of solar modules that will come offline in Illinois. However, this looming threat is an opportunity to figure out how to prepare now for recycling and reuse options before a plan is urgently needed.”
Through the ISTC initiative, Martin is working with stakeholders in various national and state organizations to find solutions to the solid waste disposal of solar modules. Organizations include the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and others. To date, less than 1 percent of decommissioned solar modules are being recycled, according to SEIA.
The collaborators are working to determine the best options for states to prepare for end-of-life solar recycling and reuse. Predicting the amount of waste headed for the landfills is important, as well as finding locations to recycle the waste.
Some of the specific challenges with developing a recycling plan is the lack of publicly available information on recycling and recovery costs and the basic infrastructure necessary to collect and transport the modules to recycling centers once they become obsolete.
Modules that have declined to about 70 percent effectiveness can still have a useful life and be reused for schools, nonprofit agencies, and other users.
Washington State was the first to pass a solar stewardship bill requiring manufacturers selling solar modules to have an end-of-life recycling program for their products. Through this program, regional take-back locations accept panels with no cost to solar panel system owners.
New Jersey’s recently established Solar Panel Recycling Commission has been tasked to investigate options on recycling and other end-of-life management recommendations for the state.
In Illinois, collaborators hope to have a system in place before millions of panels are ready for disposal in the near future.
“The Midwest is a little behind other regions in the U.S. on adopting solar energy,” Martin said. “With this and other initiatives, the Midwest is forging ahead on finding solutions to a problem that will only become more pressing with time.”
Visit the ISTC website to learn more about the initiative and solar energy disposal in Illinois.