Afterlife: Recycling Solar Panels

By Peggy Hammond    November 2, 2018

ISS is an experienced developer of utility-scale solar farms and understands a community might have concerns when a farm is ready for decommissioning.  Even though solar panels have an expected lifetime of approximately 30 years, what happens once a solar farm comes to the end of its energy production?   Do the panels go to a landfill, or can their parts be recycled?  Thankfully, there are global efforts to recycle panels and avoid the dump as a final destination.

As early as 2016, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) pointed out the innate value to be found in recycling and repurposing solar panels: “Global installed PV capacity [is experiencing] tremendous capacity growth [which] will come [with] an increase in waste associated with the sector. . . . This brings about new business opportunities to ‘close the loop’ for solar PV panels at the end of their lifetime. . . . With the right policies and enabling frameworks in place, new industries that recycle and repurpose old solar panels will drive considerable economic value creation.”  It is easy to see there are multi-leveled benefits from repurposing solar panels.  Recycling them is good for the environment, a result everyone can support, plus the creation of new jobs is always welcome news.

Given that recycling is a positive way to deal with a decommissioned solar farm’s panels, what progress have we made thus far?  The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) reports their “members are committed to responsible end-of-life management and are proactively developing best practices for the industry.  Many SEIA members already operate take-back and recycling programs for their products.  Many of SEIA’s solar manufacturers and developers . . . are working together to create a network of recyclers who can properly handle PV waste and ensure [it] is not sent to landfills.”   Washington State Department of Ecology Solid Waste Management Program wants all manufacturers of solar panels sold in (or into) their state to take responsibility for recycling or face being denied the ability to sell in Washington.  Recycling efforts are global, of course.  France already recycles panels in what  “is the first dedicated solar panel recycling plant in Europe, [a facility that is ready] to recycle 1,300 tonnes of solar panels in 2018 – virtually all solar panels that will reach their end of life in France this year – and is set to ramp up to 4,000 tonnes by 2022.”

As an added bonus, recycling touches more than the past life of a panel; it can help keep prices down on future panels.  Solar panels do “contain relatively rare elements of high value. When [panels] are recycled, it enhances the sustainable growth of photovoltaics by creating a secondary stream of valuable materials.  In this way, recycling can help relieve pressure on panel prices.”  In short, IRENA sums up the importance of panel recycling with this statement: “Responsible life-cycle management is an imperative for all PV technologies, – the socio-economic and environmental benefits which can potentially be unlocked through end-of-life processes and policies for this waste stream in the future should be seen as an opportunity today to . . . [extend] the photovoltaic value chain.”   It’s clear only positives result from recycling solar panels, so let’s hope all those in a position to participate do so.

As a developer of utility-scale solar farms, ISS is working on a clean, sustainable future for our country.  We support the industry’s efforts to make sure decommissioning a solar farm is also as green as possible.  For more information on our solar farm projects, please visit our website at or call 828-424-7884.