Installing solar panels is one of the best ways to cut down on your carbon footprint at home and live a green lifestyle.
However, solar panels do have an expiration date of about 25 years, after which it is advisable to dispose of the old and replace them with new ones, or face severe decreases in efficiency.
Disposal of solar panels is one area where solar is not yet very green, mostly due in part to lack of cost-effective recycling options and regulations for disposal.
Since solar is a relatively new industry, there simply aren’t enough old panels out there yet to justify a solar recycling system. But this is about to change in a big way, as a wave of solar panels reach the end of their lifespan in the coming years.
While implementing recycling programs and regulations are the obvious solution, it’ll take time to implement them and create the necessary infrastructure to make it cost-effective for business.
In the meantime, one less obvious solution might be right in front of us: solar leasing.
Solar hit a boom in popularity in the early 2000’s, and now the first of those systems are starting to age out, in what will soon be a landslide of solar waste, with over 60 billion tons of PV waste expected by 2050.
In North America and Asia, which account for about 70% of the world’s solar power production, there aren’t really any laws or systems in place currently dictating environmentally safe ways to dispose of panels, which means that the cheapest and easiest route is to take them to a landfill, where they can potentially leak toxic materials into the ground.
The obvious solution is to put recycling programs in place. But there’s one issue: cost.
There is no cost-effective solution in place in the US for recycling solar panels, and not yet enough demand to put one in place. When faced with lost profits, and without any regulations in place to force change, companies are more likely to choose landfills over greener alternatives.
In the EU, solar panels are already classified as electronic waste and manufacturers are required to take responsibility to minimize waste by recycling equipment. Veolia recently opened its first solar recycling plant in France in 2018, demonstrating that we do have the capability to effectively recycle solar panels. It simply isn’t yet economical enough yet in the US.
While some US organizations, such as Recycle PV and the SEIA, as well as some individual solar companies like SunPower and First Solar, are attempting to put recycling in place, the momentum has been slow, as there isn’t enough financial incentive for it to catch on.
While we wait for solar recycling laws to catch up with the industry, one alternative solution may be to create a leasing culture, instead of buying panels outright.
Many homeowners opt to buy their solar panels, but another option is to lease panels from the solar company, then return them to the manufacturer when the lease ends.
Leasing can be a better option for some homeowners, as it requires zero down payment to go solar, and you can make more affordable payments throughout the lifetime of the lease agreement. Many leasing agreements also include repairs and maintenance, as well as a warranty for the life of the panels.
Wider adoption of leasing may also be a temporary alternative solution for the solar panel disposal problem, for a few reasons.
Manufacturers can reuse materials to reduce costs
If solar panels are returned to the manufacturer, then they stand to benefit from recycling the materials to be used for new products. They can salvage almost all the glass and metal, and about 80% of the silicon and semiconductor materials, and the cost of recycling the materials will be offset by cheaper manufacturing costs for future panels.
Minimizing waste in new solar product designs
Once provided with a production cost incentive to recycle solar materials, it will become more beneficial for solar manufacturers to invest in efficient recycling processes, including placing waste management at the forefront for new solar panel designs.
Currently, solar panels consist of many pieces that are difficult to separate for recycling. But if manufacturers see the benefit in reusing panels, future designs could incorporate recyclability from the get-go, helping to make the entire process more eco-friendly and streamlined.
Resale to developing countries
Another potential pathway for returned solar panels is for the manufacturer to resell them to developing countries at a lower cost.
With solar gaining in popularity and technologies advancing every day, there may be organizations in the US that will want to replace their solar panels before the end of their life cycle. In this case, the manufacturer can easily offer them to other countries or organizations in need of cheap solar, for complete reuse of the panels without any waste. Plus, disadvantaged communities can benefit from solar power that was previously out of their reach due to high solar panel installation costs.
A lease culture would make it that much easier for this type of socially responsible reuse.
While buying might be more attractive for those who can afford it, leasing could be more beneficial for the environment - at least, for now - by creating a circular economy, wherein panels are leased, returned, and remanufactured or reused to reduce waste, leading to a much more environmentally friendly industry overall.
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