How 'Green' are solar panels?

I wonder if we'll eventually see the same problem with a growing number of expired electric car batteries too?

Growing number of Solar panels going to landfill due to cost of 'recycling'.

Millions of solar panels in California risk being dumped on landfill sites as they reach the end of their life cycles.

Over the past two decades, more than 1.3 million homeowners and builders took advantage of state incentives to install the panels on their rooftops.

However, they have a lifespan of 25-30 years and defunct ones are starting to pile up in dumps, raising fears they will contaminate groundwater with toxic metals such as lead, selenium and cadmium.

Sam Vanderhoof, a solar industry expert and chief executive of Recycle PV Solar, told the Los Angeles Times it estimated only one in ten panels were recycled because the process is expensive and time-consuming.

It costs about $20 to $30 to recycle a panel compared with $1 to $2 to send it to a landfill, according to figures from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “The industry is supposed to be green,” Vanderhoof said. “But in reality, it’s all about the money.”

California, with abundant all-year sunshine, was a pioneer in the adoption of solar power. In 2006 it introduced the California Solar Initiative which granted $3.3 billion in subsidies for installing panels on rooftops.

While the scheme was considered a success, officials are now grappling with how to safely dispose of the panels.

Serasu Duran, assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business in Canada, warned in an academic paper last year that the industry was “woefully unprepared for the deluge of waste that is likely to come”.

The issue is not limited to California — a solar panel was installed every 60 seconds last year in the US, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Duran told the LA Times: “While all the focus has been on building this renewable capacity, not much consideration has been put on the end of life of these technologies.”

  • I would consider that solar panels are fairly green, almost certainly better than the alternatives.

    Not certain WHY so many solar panels are being dumped ? They are very long lasting and I see no need for replacement on a life cycle basis. The output slowly declines in time but should should still be useful after 50 or even 100 years.

    Fossil fuel power stations generate a lot of waste at end of life. Copper is recycled, and some of the larger steel components are recycled, but a lot of the structure ends up in landfill.

  • Is reducing landfill of electronic goods, including solar panels, not one of the objectives of the WEEE directive in the EU (and inherited from there now in the UK)? I am far from an expert but I believe that means implementing a take-back scheme including recycling.

    Most reputable manufacturers demonstrate compliance through membership of PVCycle.

  • They are mostly sand. The amount of nasty  metals is almost nil, and there are not that many broken ones.
    Mike.

  • We keep hearing stories of how wind turbines aren't recyclable, and solar panels aren't recyclable.  Nobody mentions the recycling of coal fired power stations.

    It's almost as if there's a large number of people who have a vested interest in seeing renewables curtailed.

    PS. Lithuim batteries are recyclable.  There aren't that many recycling centres around yet, because we don't yet have large numbers of them to recycle.

  • Very very true Simon. The sad fact for our profession is that no technology is perfect in terms of environmental impact, however some technology is less imperfect than others - in some cases much less. 

  • It is down the the cost of recycling versus that of simply burying in landfill. Landfill is cheaper.

  • If no longer required PV modules are still functional, then in my view re-use should be encouraged. If someone replaces a PV array, then I suspect that most of the modules still work. If a building fitted with PV modules is knocked down, then ALL the modules probably work.

    A poor person living off grid would be very glad of otherwise redundant modules, even if they no longer meet the original specification. A nominal 350 watt module that now produces only 250 watts is more than enough to light a basic rural home, with a couple of secondhand or even home made batteries.

    Half a dozen such modules would power a rural school or clinic in Africa.

    And even completely dead modules, if physically intact make useful roofing for sheds or basic homes. In the developing world there are people who repair dead PV modules, perhaps by bypassing a failed string of cells to produce a lower but still useful voltage.

  • I agree. I keep looking at 2nd hand ones just for a project, but it's the inverters which are the expensive bit. And I didn't fancy ponying up £600 for an inverter, only to have a dodgy 2nd hand panel destroy it upon connection.

  • I doubt that a dodgy second hand PV module could destroy an inverter.

    In the case of a battery charging system, then the battery voltage into the inverter is roughly constant, with only the charge rate determined by the PV module.

    In the case of a grid tie inverter, then these are designed to operate over a very wide range of input voltages. A lower than expected voltage will reduce the energy fed back into the grid, but can not damage the inverter.

  • Some interesting thoughts on reusing solar panels.

    I have read about people making one good Nissin Leaf battery out of two used ones by selecting the best modules of even as far as swapping cells. That must have some risks, but as long as you understand them it should be ok to do.

    The problem with the solar PV industry is that most systems, especially large ones, exist as subsidy farms and the owners/operators don’t think reduce/reuse/recycle at all (as noted by those who boosted their solar output with diesel generators).

    How could a market/distribution system for used but working solar panel be set up? There will be a cost in removing the panels without damage, transporting them and storing them. A solution would be to significantly increase the cost of landfill (but that also encourages fly tipping) so it is more economical to reuse/recycle. Here, Switzerland, you pay to dispose of anything that cannot be recycled, either at around 90p for a 35L rubbish bag or £1.50 per 5kg at the recycling centre. I am not sure where solar panels would fit in, are they electronic waste, covered by a WEEE supplement when purchased, or building rubble, pay by the kg?