California is the leader in solar energy in the United States and has been doing it for over 20 years. The state has the most home solar installations in the country but is now facing a solar panel disposal crisis as these panels reach the end of their lifespan.
In the state’s quest to fight climate change, they inadvertently created another environmental problem.
While solar panels are actually recyclable, only about 1 in 10 solar panels are recycled. The rest end up in landfills, and unfortunately, the chemical substances found in solar panels are toxic and can end up in underground water supplies.
The situation is going to get a lot worse as solar panels typically have a lifespan of 25 years. That means the early adopters are going to have to find replacements. Thus there will be more solar panels than ever ending up in landfills.
Can California solve this crisis before it gets any worse?
Why are Solar Panels Not Being Recycled?
Fans of solar energy will be quick to point out that solar panels are made of 80% recyclable material, and that is completely true.
Yet, it’s pointless if they are not recycled. And what no one mentions is that solar panels are hard to recycle.
These are complicated electrical devices that are treated to stay outside 24/7. Obviously, they are built to last and endure harsh conditions. Disassembling them requires a lot of work, and that’s more than a normal recycling center can handle.
This, of course, raises the question, how can the solar capital of the country not have a dedicated solar panel recycling center?
Well, there are two main reasons.
Firstly, it wasn’t needed before. Think about it; the solar boom was about 20 years ago in the state. Since solar panels have a 25-year lifespan, there wouldn’t exactly be a lot of panels to recycle back then. However, that is changing and the state is not prepared.
The other big factor is its economic viability.
You need specialized equipment and skilled workers to disassemble solar panels and retrieve the raw material. And unfortunately, what can be retrieved, is not worth the effort. That’s why many companies are looking into viable methods of extracting silicon from solar panels.
This would change everything and make recycling very profitable.
What Else Can Be Done to Improve Solar Panel Disposal?
Another approach that has so far been unsuccessful is putting the disposal burden on solar panel manufacturers.
Many states have tried and failed to pass legislation that makes the manufacturer responsible for handling the panels once they are at the end of their lifespan. The idea is that these companies would improve recycling capabilities to handle the influx of panels.
Yet, no state has been successful at this campaign.
On the same note, it would also be ideal for recycling centers if all panels were made the same way. As it is now, panels from different manufacturers require different disassembling techniques, which just makes it that much harder.
Without legislation, this is not likely to change.
Robert has been following and writing about environmental stories for years at GreenGeeks. He believes that highlighting environmentally friendly practices can help promote change in every household.