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 panel 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?
Similar to fossil fuels, panels can have adverse effects on the environment if not disposed of properly. The potential harm caused by the improper disposal of 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 also wash this hazardous waste from the modules and into the soil and nearby water supplies.
Can Solar Panels be Recycled?
Old panels contain valuable materials and can therefore be recycled. At this point in time, we can recycle solar panels with up to 96% efficiency. The only parts that cannot be reused are a small proportion of glass and silicon and the plastic that encases the solar cells.
The cost involved is the main stumbling block to most panels being recycled with such efficiency. It currently costs $15-20 to recycle one standard 18-square-foot solar module that has reached its end of life. 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 cost of recycling panels 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 need 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 is tighter laws prohibiting the dumping of retired solar panels in landfills. This has already happened in the EU, which has helped reduce the amount of electronic waste associated with solar. The major disadvantage of this move is that the cost of disposing of solar waste now falls on consumers who own solar installations.
Given that it costs around $20 to recycle an 18-square-foot module, the additional cost to recycle 2,000 square foot roof’s worth of panels is $2,220. This additional cost can put future adopters of solar panels off and punish current consumers with fees they were not aware of when they purchased and installed solar panels.
The second way that the recycling of waste panels can be encouraged is to incentivize the producers of panels to find cheaper and more efficient ways of extracting valuable metals from the modules themselves.
One way of doing this is by 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 life, they would be returned to the manufacturer, who will then be responsible for disposing of the panels the way they see fit.
Why Would a Leasing Culture Encourage Better Recycling of Solar Panels?
If leasing were the norm then manufacturers of panels would be incentivized to find cheap, efficient ways of reusing the component parts of panels. This is 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 are there for manufacturers. A lease-based market will only incentivize this further.
Additionally, if manufacturers know that they are responsible for the eventual recycling of the products they create, they will be more eco-mindful when designing the panels of the future.
This could lead to a move away from using harmful metals such as lead and cadmium and 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 modules is that it opens the door for panels that have lost some of their efficiency but 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 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 panels outright usually works out cheaper than leasing.
For someone having panels installed on a 2,000-square-foot roof, the cost of leasing solar modules usually costs around $100 a month. This means that over the typical 25-year lifecycle of panels, this would cost you $30,000.
In addition to this, someone who leases 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 mentioned, those who purchase their panels outright are responsible for eventually disposing of them. If dumping photovoltaic panels in a landfill becomes illegal, like in Washington State, then this will add an extra $2,200 to an owner.
Furthermore, the tax incentives of owning 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.
Related Article: How to Finance a Solar Roof
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 the reuse of materials and encouraging investment in 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 reduction 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.