Solar Panel Disposal: A Quick Guide

by | Apr 17, 2024 | Renewable Energy, Solar Energy

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As the urgency of climate action grows, so does the use of renewable energy. Solar photovoltaics (PV), sometimes called solar panels, are one of the most fast developing clean energy sources. Solar panels have a long lifespan, are increasingly affordable, and are ecologically friendly. But what happens to solar panels once they stop generating electricity? Where do the decommissioned solar panels go? There are several methods for solar panel disposal, and we’ll go over what occurs when a solar panel outreach the end of its useful life.

End-of-life Management for Solar Panels 

Solar panels have a useful life of roughly 30 years when they generate sustainable, zero-emission electricity. Certain compounds in PVs, such as cadmium and lead, are not dangerous during manufacturing but can become a toxic waste hazard if not correctly disposed of, making end-of-life management vital to solar energy’s viability as a critical power source. Recycling and disposal technology is still in development, and there needs to be a government policy or regulation in place because solar energy is a young industry. When solar panels end their useful life, they are typically reused, recycled, or disposed of in landfills.

Methods of Solar Panel Disposal

Methods of Solar Panel Disposal

Here are the top 3 methods of disposing of solar panels:

1. Solar Panel Disposal in Landfills

With solar panel recycling still in its early days, landfills are now the cheapest and most convenient disposal option. However, using landfills for end-of-life solar panel disposal is unsustainable. As previously stated, hazardous elements included in solar panels might cause a toxic waste concern. The IRENA predicts that 80 million metric tonnes of solar panel waste will be generated globally by 2050. If most decommissioned PV systems are disposed of in landfills, the environment will suffer greatly. However, the situation is still being determined.

So, while landfills are not a feasible long-term solution to the looming solar panel waste issue, and current recycling technologies are not feasible for every solar project’s end-of-life action plan, this does not diminish the value of solar energy in addressing the immediate threat posed by greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. And by implementing solar panel disposal policies and emerging technologies, we can address the issue shortly.

2. Solar Panel Recycling

Solar panel recycling benefits both the environment and the supply chain. As previously said, solar panels contain various rare and expensive elements, such as gallium and indium, and others potentially hazardous, such as cadmium and lead. Recycling solar panels enables reclaimed rare and precious elements to be reprocessed in new panels, preventing dangerous materials from ending up in landfills. Recycling as end-of-life management minimizes solar energy’s environmental impact while lowering costs.

While solar panel recycling is an environmentally appropriate disposal option, it is complicated and costly. Solar panels are made up of various components, and each has its recycling process. In simpler terms, solar panels cannot be recycled as solar panels; instead, they must be disassembled and split into elements before being recycled using the appropriate procedure for each constituent. A complex procedure is breaking down a solar panel designed to function as a unit. According to NREL, recycling costs $28 per module, whereas landfilling costs $1.38 per module. Because of the more significant costs, technological complexity, and lack of policy regarding solar panel disposal, most PVs end up in landfills nowadays.

3. Reusing

Reusing solar panels offers a potentially more sustainable alternative which is feasible. Aging solar panels can find new life in various applications, from powering smaller gadgets like garden lights to transforming them into artistic displays.

Though repurposing solar panels falls short of the environmental benefits of recycling, it remains a preferable choice over landfill disposal. In the USA, repurposing solar panels proves viable as long as it poses no environmental risks.

Also Read: Top Solar Technology For Homes

Challenges to Solar Panel Disposal

Presence of Hazardous Materials: Solar panels contain harmful substances that pose environmental risks if not disposed of correctly.

Insufficient Recycling Infrastructure: Many nations lack adequate systems for recycling solar panels, resulting in a significant proportion being deposited in landfills.

High Recycling Costs: Recycling solar panels often incurs greater expenses compared to manufacturing new ones, discouraging recycling efforts and contributing to increased disposal rates.

Lack of Consumer Awareness: Many consumers are unaware of the hazardous materials present in solar panels and the appropriate disposal methods, leading to improper disposal practices and adverse environmental impacts.

In summary, solar panel disposal poses a considerable environmental concern due to the residence of toxic compounds such as lead and cadmium. Developing appropriate recycling methods and legislation is critical to reducing environmental impact and ensuring solar energy’s long-term viability as a renewable resource.

What Happens To Solar Panels After 25 Years?

After 25 years, solar panels typically experience a decrease in efficiency. Most solar panels are warranted to retain at least 80% of their initial output after 25 years. This decline is due to the gradual degradation of the photovoltaic materials caused by exposure to the elements like UV light and weather.

Once they reach the end of their warranty period, solar panels can still function but at reduced effectiveness. Many panels continue to produce electricity beyond 25 years, albeit at lower outputs. The decision to replace them often depends on whether the reduced efficiency meets the energy needs and financial goals of the user.

When solar panels are retired, recycling options exist, but they’re not yet widely adopted everywhere due to the cost and the complexity of breaking down the materials. Efforts are being made to improve recycling processes to handle the increasing volume of retired solar panels.

Also Read: Understanding Solar Power Cost: The Economics Of Sunlight



  • Michael Thompson

    Michael Thompson is an esteemed expert in the renewable energy sector, with a profound experience spanning over 25 years. His expertise encompasses various sustainable energy solutions, including solar, wind, hydroelectric, and energy efficiency practices. Michael discusses the latest trends in renewable energy and provides practical advice on energy conservation.


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