What Will We Do with All Those Solar Panels Once Their Useful Lives are Over?


Publication:
Date: 
April 11, 2018
As solar power booms, businesses are exploring ways to ensure valuable components don’t end up in landfills.

Solar power is having its hockey stick moment. Since the early 2000s, the amount of solar panels being installed worldwide has been growing exponentially, and it’s expected to continue to do so for decades. By the end of 2015, an estimated 222 gigawatts worth of solar energy had been installed worldwide. According to a recent report from the International Renewable Energy Agency, that number could reach 4,500 GW by 2050.

But the solar panels generating that power don’t last forever. The industry standard life span is about 25 to 30 years, and that means that some of the panels installed at the early end of the current boom aren’t long from being retired. And each passing year, more and more will be pulled from service — glass and metal photovoltaic modules that will soon start adding up to millions, and then tens of millions of metric tons of material.

“It’s not too far off that those are going to be coming off line, and we’re going to have a waste management issue,” says Garvin Heath, a senior scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and a solar power expert. “It’s fair to say that it’s starting to become more widely recognized as an issue that we’re going to need to start working on pretty soon.” ...