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525 Route 73 N, Suite 104
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End-of-life solutions for solar panels The challenges and solutions for creating a circular economy.

By Janette Freeman, FabTech Solar Solutions

The end is coming

With solar panels having a life span of 20 to 30 years, many panels are starting to reach their end-of-life. By 2050, the International Renewable Energy Agency projects that up to 78 million metric tons of solar panels will have reached the end of their life, and that the world will be generating about six million metric tons of new solar waste annually.

Brian Scott, President of Solar Dev, once explained how "solar panel disposal is something that often comes up in opposition to a clean energy transition," reminding us how this is an issue that affects everyone in the renewable energy field, either directly or indirectly. If we claim to be the greener solution, we need to be prepared to make every aspect of green energy as clean as possible, from a panel's beginning to its end-of-life.

Planning for a solar panel's end-of-life, strictly speaking, means having a plan for recycling, or refurbishing, and not just dumping them into a landfill. Recycling and refurbishing provide valid, economical options for handling solar panels at their end-of-life.

Recycling solar

Recycling has some difficulties to overcome, as the recovery of materials is labor intensive and tough on equipment, which means there are more costs to recycle than the material's value received. Freight is also a major expense in hauling away hundreds, if not thousands, of modules from a site that has just been constructed, weather damaged, decommissioned, or repowered. Attention must be given to making recycling as available and profitable as possible.

Refurbishing solar

Not every solar panel has to be recycled at its current end-of-life. Refurbishing and reusing solar panels, when possible, can have a mass impact in preventing waste build-up. Most manufacturers say that the solar panel decreases its efficiency in power capacity by only 10 percent every 10 years, and experience has shown that solar panels can still work past their original end-of-life date.

Refurbishing solar panels is also extremely beneficial for a circular economy, allowing wider and cheaper access to green energy. For example, a company's decommissioned solar panels can be sold to a refurbisher. A good refurbisher sorts, cleans, mends, tests and resells the good panels at a discounted price, and commits to recycle the panels which cannot be fixed.

Refurbished solar panels are resold very inexpensively, making it affordable for those that cannot afford new solar. People living off-grid, RV and mobile homeowners, international markets, or DIY's jump on the reduced prices. It is a win-win. The good refurbisher not only recycles the panels that cannot be reused, but also shows a commitment to the world's renewable energy efforts by donating to nonprofits that organize solar installations in third world countries.

Everyone can help

Companies can start considering end-of-life in their financial plans. Governments can pass legislation giving incentives to recycle, landfill restrictions, or supportive legislation to encourage recycling. Researchers can continue pushing to optimize recycling and creating more efficient panels for the future. People considering switching to solar can consider using refurbished panels. Everyone can help make this world a little bit cleaner, greener, and with a bit more solar.

Author Tom Lombardo from Engineering Magazine once explained how "no technology is entirely benign. Sustainability is about using technology that causes the least amount of damage. In that regard, solar and wind are still cleaner than fossil fuels."

Solar energy is the future. But making solar more sustainable is not just going to magically happen. It will require everyone to help the world shift into the next great industrial revolution.

Janette Freeman ([email protected]) is Business Development Manager at FabTech Solar Solutions (www.fabtech.net), which provides both refurbishing and recycling solutions. Refurbishing options offset recycling/freight costs and give others who normally couldn't afford brand new solar panels the opportunity to buy used. With refurbishing facilities in Arizona and Georgia, and recycling partnerships nationwide, FabTech continues to make these services more accessible to all. They have a strict no-landfill policy.