The solar industry is booming. That’s good for the climate.
But the electricity output of solar panels declines over time, so many are expected to be retired or upgraded after about 25 years. As a result, the industry is exploring what can be done with used panels instead of sending them to landfills.*
Tom Murphy of Penn State says a lot of the materials that go into solar panels – including aluminum, copper, glass, and silicon – can be used again.
“So you can actually break down the panels and reuse or recycle somewhere between 80 to 85% of the material that’s there,” he says.
He says in Europe, policies have helped jumpstart the solar recycling industry. But in the U.S., there’s been little progress – partly because relatively few panels have reached retirement age.
“So you’re trying to start an industry to actually do that when you don’t have a lot of commodity that’s being directed to it,” Murphy says.
And at a small scale, breaking panels down costs more than the raw materials are worth.
But the International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that the U.S. could create up to 10 million tons of solar panel waste by 2050. At that scale, recycling them could become more cost-effective.
So there’s potential to grow the solar panel recycling industry in the U.S. and keep millions of tons of waste out of landfills.
Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media
*This paragraph was updated August 2, 2022 to reflect the fact that solar panels can continue producing electricity even after 25 years.