May 24, 2011 Green Answers

How to Recycle End of Lifecycle Solar Panels

By David Turnbull on Tue, 05/24/2011 – 6:02pm

The Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and land masses absorb approximately 3,850,000 Exajoules of energy from our nearest star, the sun, every year.  This enticing and abundant source of energy has assisted with the growth of the solar industry, an industry that has been doubling the production of solar cells by an average of 48 percent each year, with an 83 percent growth of panel installations in the United States alone, according to the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

However, within many industries, what happens to a product after it is sold to a customer tends to not be a fiscal concern and that product can end up buried underneath layers upon layers of assorted landfill garbage.  Usually it is only through governmental regulation that it becomes their concern.  Yet it is not necessarily the case with the solar panel industry.  Several firms realizing that 20 to 25 years down the line when their consumers are finished with their products have worked alongside the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition to develop active recycling programs to ensure a responsible image for the industry.  An analogous coalition within the European Union, 17 firms strong, is the PV Cycle Association (www.pvcycle.org) that has also come together to develop a voluntary recycling infrastructure for PV panels.

Reasons to Recycle Old Panels

There are very strong reasons to recycle solar panels.  Recovering harmful substances like Cadmium, Indium, and Selenium prevents exposure to humans and animals by allowing for proper storage.  These valuable materials could be reused, if producers have designed responsible products, and placed within new panels.  Also, it takes about 33 percent of the energy to transform an old solar panel and create a new one, costing manufacturers less and saving them more money.

So what does this mean to residents that will eventually have to replace their solar panels?  And how can they get their solar panels recycled?

Step One

If you are a residential consumer interested in purchasing solar panels, research first for firms that embrace extended producer responsibility.  Firms that embrace this principle understand the environmental costs associated with goods throughout their life cycles and include such costs into the price of their products.  So for purchasing solar panels, the first thing you want to do is purchase find a firm selling solar panels within your price range that has already enacted an active recycling program.  There are firms that currently don’t have programs in place and finding a third party that handles panel recycling can be difficult depending on your geographic location.

Step Two

Request collection.  There are two primary routes for solar panel collection available to domestic U.S. consumers:

1. Manufacturers may reclaim panels directly from consumers and asking for collection can be as easy as picking up the phone or scheduling though the firm’s website.  First Solar in Phoenix, Arizona (http://www.firstsolar.com/en/) has a collection program allowing for 90 percent of the mass of each solar module to be recycled into new products.

2. Contact a third party near your area.  Depending on geographic location, the manufacturer of your panels may not be able to collect and recycle locally.  Third parties such as PV Recycling in Tucson, Arizona (http://pvrecycling.com/) are beginning to generate business from the localization movement.

Summary

In the long run, researching PV panel manufacturers’ recycling programs before purchasing can be beneficial to the environment, since purchasing photovoltaic panels from firms that design panels with re-use of valuable materials are more likely to have the vital infrastructure needed for panel recycling.

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