Following the first wave of popularity in solar power technology in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we are now faced with the daunting prospect of disposing of these early solar panels in a way that does not harm the environment.
Given that the usable life expectancy of these early solar panels was 25 years, a solution to their effective disposal needs to be found in the next decade. Indeed, it is predicted that by 2024 there will be 3 million tonnes of solar panel waste produced globally.
Why is solar panel waste so damaging to the environment?
The potential harm caused by the improper disposal of photovoltaic panels is due to the cadmium and lead used in the cells. Both cadmium and lead are carcinogenic, meaning that leaving these panels in landfills poses the risk of poisoning water supplies if the toxic substances leach out when the panels begin to break down.
Rainwater can wash cadmium and lead out of the broken cells and into soil and nearby water supplies.
Can solar panels be recycled?
At this point in time, solar panels can be recycled with up to 96% efficiency. The only parts of the panel that cannot be reused at all are a small proportion of glass and silicon, as well as the plastic that encases the solar cells themselves.
The main stumbling block to the majority of solar panels being recycled with such efficiency is the cost of doing so.
It currently costs $15-20 to recycle one standard 18 square foot solar power module. This makes it far more expensive than disposing of the panels via landfills. In the majority of states, this latter option is still legal.
The reason for the high price of recycling is because of the extensive thermal and chemical treatments needed to break the bonds between the glass, silicon, plastic and cadmium in the cells. The fact that the lead and cadmium needs to be disposed of separately adds to these costs.
How can the recycling of solar panels be encouraged?
There are two broad ways that the recycling of solar panels can be encouraged.
The first of these is for tighter laws to come out which prohibit the dumping of old solar panels in a landfill. This has already happened in the EU.
The major disadvantage of this is that the cost of disposing of the panels now falls on the consumer.
Given that it costs around $20 to recycle an 18 square foot module, additional cost to recycle 2,000 square foot roof’s worth of solar panels is $2,220. This additional cost could put future adopters of solar panels off, as well as punishing current consumers with fees that they may not have been aware of when they made the purchase.
The second way that recycling of solar panels can be encouraged is to incentivize the producers of solar panels to find cheaper and more efficient ways of recycling the photovoltaic panels themselves.
One way of doing this is through moving towards a “lease culture” when it comes to the procuring of solar technology. This would mean that in the future rather than purchasing panels outright, consumers would lease solar panels from manufacturers.
When panels reach the end of their usable life cycle they would be returned to the manufacturer and it would be the manufacturer’s responsibility to dispose of the solar panel in whatever way they see fit.
Why would a leasing culture encourage better recycling of solar panels?
If leasing were the norm then manufacturers of solar panels would be incentivized to find cheap, efficient ways of reusing the component parts of solar panels because they stand to profit from it in the future.
Given that, after the correct treatment, 80% of the silicon and expensive semiconductor material from old panels can be reused in new ones, the financial benefits of investing in the research and development of solar panel recycling is definitely there for manufacturers. A lease-based market will only incentivize this further.
Additionally, if solar panel manufacturers know that they are responsible for the eventual recycling of the products that they create, they will be more eco-mindful when designing the solar panels of the future.
This could lead to a move away from using harmful metals such as lead and cadmium as well as a reduction in the amount of plastic used in solar panels as this cannot be reused.
A final potential benefit of leasing being the common way of procuring solar panels is that it opens the door for panels that have lost some of their efficiency, but which are still usable, to be resold to developing countries at a cheaper cost.
Demand for solar power in developing countries is high, and manufacturers have the capability to repurpose and bundle together collections of second-hand solar panels for resale.
Individual owners do not have the means to do this, meaning that this potential for reuse is being wasted in our current buying culture.
Why is leasing not the norm when it comes to procuring solar panels?
At this point in time, purchasing solar panels outright usually works out cheaper than leasing.
For someone having solar panels installed on a 2,000 square foot roof, the cost of leasing solar panels usually costs around $100 a month. This means that over the typical 25-year lifecycle of solar panels, this would cost you $30,000.
In addition to this, someone who leases solar panels is not eligible for the same tax rebates as an outright buyer, as these tax benefits are accrued by the lessor.
These financial benefits of outright buying do not seem entirely sustainable, however.
As already mentioned, those who purchase their solar panels outright have the responsibility for eventually disposing of them. If dumping photovoltaic panels in a landfill becomes illegal, as it has in Washington State, then this will add an extra $2,200 to an owner.
Furthermore, the tax incentives of owning solar panels only exist because of the benefits that becoming reliant on solar power has to the environment. If an inability to dispose of solar panels in an eco-friendly way undoes these benefits then it is not unfeasible that the tax incentives will be reduced, or may disappear entirely.
In short, outright purchasing currently still works out as the cheapest way of setting up solar panels in your home, however as the problem of safe disposal becomes more pressing the cost of ownership may begin to rise.
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Will leasing solar panels ever be as cost-effective as purchasing outright?
If leasing solar panels were to become the norm it should reduce the cost of producing these panels through reuse of materials and encouraging investment into recycling technologies from solar panel manufacturers.
Even if the reuse of glass and silicone proved to be prohibitively expensive, the metal and glass that make up the vast majority of the panels, including its frame, can be reused relatively easily. This alone has the potential to lower the manufacturing costs by 36%.
As leasing solar panels are not yet the norm, it is not currently known just how it will affect the cost of solar technology in the future. However, car companies that are moving towards leasing as the standard model of ownership are seeing ownership reductions costs of 20% on average.
Many industries are moving towards a culture of leasing out their products with the express purpose of setting up processes that allow them to reuse the raw materials in these products once the leases are finished. This movement has been dubbed “the circular economy”, and is predicted to save manufacturing companies $1 trillion by 2025.
Surely this suggests that moving to a leasing culture will help reduce the costs of installing solar panels in the long run?