Yes, solar panels can pile up in landfills and pollute the environment just like everything else we throw away.
And as solar panels reach the end of their projected lifespans, are replaced by more efficient ones, or get damaged during installation or extreme weather, recycling companies and environmental agencies are looking for ways to reuse discarded panels.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection in August released a report to kickstart the state’s solar panel recycling industry, analyzing national and global solutions and highlighting recycling companies in Massachusetts.
“Right now, the majority of panels go to landfills,” said Tom Szaky, founder and chief executive officer of TerraCycle, a national recycling company with an office in Fall River.
Industry experts say solar panels can last from 25 to 35 years. The Massachusetts DEP says the state is expected to have 6,500 tons of retired solar panels annually by 2030, and 40,000 tons by 2050, assuming an average lifespan of 25 years. But that’s nothing compared to the global amount of solar panel waste that can accumulate by 2050 — 78 million tons, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
As nations move to keep solar panels out of landfills, the solar panel recycling business is expected to be a $1.72 billion industry by 2028, according to a market research report.
Solar power technology is not new; the first rooftop solar panels were installed on a New York building in 1883. But it wasn’t until the energy crisis in the 1970s that solar energy gained government support, according to the Institute for Energy Research. In 1979, then-president Jimmy Carter installed 32 solar panels on the roof of the White House, where they were used to heat water. In 1986, then-president Ronald Regan had them removed, according to the National Museum of American History.
But the US Energy Information Administration says that widespread solar panel adoption didn’t occur in the United States until decades later, in 2010, when solar panels accounted for 4 percent of new energy generation capacity. By 2023, solar accounted for 54 percent of new energy generating capacity in the country, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Entrepreneurs and advocates like Szaky say now is the time to create infrastructure so that discarded panels don’t pile up in landfills.
“Solar panel recycling is really embryonic,” Szaky said. But the day is coming when large numbers of solar panels will be reaching the end of their lifespans. “This is something that really needs a solution.”
Many solar panels that are recycled or thrown out have not actually reached the end of the line but are replaced because they have gotten damaged or have become less efficient. Solar panels decrease in efficiency by .5 percent each year, so a 20-year-old panel produces 90 percent of what it did in the first year, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. And as used solar panels decrease in efficiency, new commercial models increase in efficiency.
Szaky’s company, TerraCycle, which began recycling solar panels two years ago, handles both commercial and residential panels for $50 apiece. The company recycled 56 solar panels from MIT in June.
TerraCycle picks up solar panels from the customer’s home or building and brings them to one of their distribution centers. From there, they are sent to a processing warehouse, where they are dismantled or refurbished.
Solar panels are about 75 percent glass but also have valuable materials that can be resold, like aluminum frames, copper, silicon, and silver. The problem, Szaky says, is that it costs more to process those materials than to sell them. So the company charges a fee.
Right now, the economics of panel recycling doesn’t make sense. It costs about $30 to process a panel, which brings in just $3 in revenue, according to the DEP. But the Research and Markets report says the market for these extracted materials is projected to grow globally from $170 million in 2022 to $2.7 billion by 2030.
Robin Ingenthron, founder and president of Good Point Recycling, an e-waste recycling company based in Middlebury, Vt., with a facility in Brockton, said solar panels should not be shredded, as often happens, but reused.
“Panels don’t ‘go bad,’” Ingenthron wrote in an email. “They just get replaced like a computer monitor or flip phone, and a single reused one will generate more income than it costs to scrap three bad ones.”
In August, Good Point Recycling sent 230 used solar panels from a solar field in Vermont to Tamale, Ghana, where some will be used to produce energy and retrofit diesel generators for Good Point Hotel, a hotel focused on urban ecotourism that is expected to open in the winter. The panels that aren’t used for the hotel will be sold or rented. The panels are not refurbished but inspected for quality before they’re sent.
“We need the solar panel industry to see reuse of panels as a way to open markets like ours in Ghana, retrofitting diesel generators, at hotels, schools, and hospitals,” Ingenthron wrote.
In 1999, when he worked for the Massachusetts DEP, Ingenthron won a grant from the EPA to fund a project to develop electronics reuse and recycling infrastructure in Massachusetts for cathode ray tubes, which were used in televisions and computer monitors before they were phased out. Now, he is working on a similar grant proposal for solar panel recycling.
Federal incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act are predicted to increase solar panel use by 48 percent, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. And with more panels comes more waste. Advocates think states need legislation that takes the complete lifecycle of solar panels into account, from production to decommissioning.
Currently, there are federal universal waste regulations that restrict hazardous waste like batteries, pesticides, equipment that contains mercury, and aerosol cans from polluting the environment, requiring official end-of-life waste management. Additional items, like solar panels, could be added to that list on a statewide level. The only two states that have deemed solar panels universal waste are California and Hawaii.
“[Solar panels] are also full of some environmental hazards that need to be properly managed,” said Stephen Filippone, chief technology officer of SunR, a solar panel and e-waste recycling company in Brazil. “So just throwing them in the dump is bad for the environment in terms of toxicity.”
Solar panels contain some heavy metals like lead and cadmium that are harmful to humans and the environment at high levels, according to the EPA.
“I think that [solar panel recycling] is certainly expanding now,” Szaky said. “In green tech, I think there is an especially big demand to see good, proper circular end-of-life solutions.”