Booming Solar Industry Has An Unresolved Waste Problem

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Yves here. It is troubling to see how, in an effort to preserve modern lifestyles, green energy enthusiasts focus on greenhouse gas reduction and routinely skip over environmental costs. Here we see that disposal of dead solar panels isn’t (much) being addressed, and even if entrepreneurs were to saddle up, there are some components that will remain difficult to reprocess and not nice to trash.

No one at a policy-making level has gotten serious with how to make do with less, which would not necessarily lead to much of a reduction of standards of living if done thoughtfully. But that would entail burden sharing, big cuts in the military, and the super-rich curbing bad habits like their addiction to private jets. So we are set to continue on our bad inertial path.

By Tsvetana Paraskova, a writer for with over a decade of experience writing for news outlets such as iNVEZZ and SeeNews. Originally published at OilPrice

  • Millions of end-of-life solar panels are being decommissioned within the next couple of years.
  • Researchers, start-ups, and governments are looking to create an industry for recycling solar panels, not only to reduce said waste, but also to recover valuable materials.
  • The amount of solar panels for scrap could grow to 200 million tons globally by 2050.

Solar power installations are leading a surge in renewable energy capacity, and solar additions are set to account for two-thirds of the increase in global renewable power capacity this year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said last week.

Along with the solar boom, however, comes another surge—the end-of-life solar panels need to be disposed of, and solar panel waste will grow exponentially as installations boom.

We are now seeing the beginning of a major waste problem, or the big clean tech opportunity for the next few decades, depending on how industries, start-ups, and governments will approach the issue of solar panel waste.

Booming Solar Industry  

Solar power installations have soared in recent years and as panel life is somewhere at around 15 years, now the first industrial-scale solar panels are coming to the end of their operational lives and have to be decommissioned. With the current solar boom, 15 years from now, there will be millions of tons of end-of-life solar panels, which, unless recycled, will add to the world’s plastics waste problem.

This year, for the first time ever, investment in solar power generation is set to eclipse investment in oil production in 2023, the IEA said last month.

“The shining example of the growth in clean energy investment is solar, which in 2023 is set to attract more capital than global oil production for the first time ever. This reflects the changing tide in world energy,” the IEA’s Birol said.

But the bright future of solar has its dark and dirty secret—the huge amount of waste from end-of-life solar panels.

Researchers, start-ups, and governments are looking to create an industry for recycling solar panels, not only to reduce said waste, but also to recover the valuable materials used in the manufacturing of those panels—silver, copper, and silicon.

With a looming shortage of the key metals for the energy transition, recovering and recycling part of the materials used in solar panel manufacturing could be a valuable source of additional amounts of those metals that have already been mined.

“Waste Mountain”

The problem is scale. The industry is in its very early stages, but it needs rapid development to be able to make a circular economy opportunity out of this waste problem.

“It’s going to be a waste mountain by 2050, unless we get recycling chains going now,” Ute Collier, deputy director of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) told the BBC.

According to Collier, there could still be a manageable 4 million tons of solar panels for scrap by 2030, but the amount could surge to over 200 million tons globally by 2050 as solar power deployment booms.

That would be half the amount of plastic produced globally every year, the BBC notes.

The aluminum frame and the glass from the panels can be recycled at a high recovery rate, while it is more difficult to extract and recycle the smaller but valuable intertwined components such as the metals.

Emerging Solar Panel Recycling Industry 

Moreover, current solar recycling facilities have low treatment capacity for PV recycling, the IEA said in a report last year.

“Because the capacity factor of these plants is currently low, high treatment costs per unit are expected, with several plants stockpiling PV modules until they have enough volume to process,” the IEA noted.

Although at first glance glass seems to be recycled, the use of recovered glass is limited to less valuable products, with high transportation costs being an issue, the agency said.

According to Rystad Energy, the solar PV recycling industry could be worth $2.7 billion by the end of this decade, up from only $170 million in 2022.

The panel components with the highest value are aluminum, silver, copper, and polysilicon. Silver accounts for about 0.05% of the total weight but makes up 14% of the material value, Rystad analysts said.

Last year, scientists from the University of Leicester said they discovered an alternative process that recovers silver and aluminum from end-of-life PV cells. The team described a process using iron chloride and aluminum chloride dissolved in brines to extract the silver and aluminum from solar cells. The process using these solvents retrieves more than 90% of the silver and aluminum in a period of 10 minutes. The silver recovered is high purity, which means that it can be reused in industrial settings.

Rong Deng, Research Fellow from the UNSW School of Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy Engineering, says the biggest problem with the current process is the inability to extract the rare metals in the panels while keeping costs down.

UNSW Sydney solar experts said this week that the world needs bespoke technology designed to recycle important elements inside solar panels.

“But if continue down the path of using non-specialised technology to recycle PV modules, then we’ll still continue to end up with parts that are contaminated with other materials which is not a sustainable solution,” Deng said.

In addition, large-scale recycling has yet to start for solar panels.

“The industry is new and still growing, with researchers examining how to commercialize recycling to economically recover most of the components of a solar panel. Elements of this recycling process can be found in the United States, but it is not yet happening on a large scale,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says.

In Europe, France-based solar recycling company ROSI says that its facility in Grenoble, the world’s first fully dedicated solar panel recycling factory, can extract and reuse up to 99% of a panel’s components, including precious materials like silver and copper. ROSI is currently the only European company currently operating at an industrial scale.

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  1. Cervantes

    The average age of solar panels being installed right now is probably closer to 30 than 15 years. That said, around 15-20 years, it’s true that the panels will start to fail in what would look like a mortality curve. But it makes you wonder about the author if they’re saying panels installed today will only last 15 years.

    1. digi_owl

      My impression was that solar panels fail kinda like batteries, in that they gradually lose peak output year by year.

      I have seen a few videos lately of people buying second hand panels from industrial installations that they use in home or recreational scenarios, as they still have enough output for such.

    2. New Okie

      They may be taking that estimate from here: .

      Basically they calculate that a smart consumer who bought panels in 2011 would replace them in 2026–or 2021 if she is extra smart!–just because panels became so much cheaper.

      They then project this logic out into the future, which I find dubious; panel manufacturing cost improvements do not also decrease the cost of installation or transport.

      But that may be the source of that figure.

    3. AJB

      I think the design life estimate is a distraction from the core issue (even if there’s a touch of bias from a carbon energy proponent). Whether the panels last 15-years or 25-years we still need to get a move on and work out how to manage the end-of-life waste.The mountain of waste and the hard to recycle rare earths are a real issue that is often conveniently overlooked. Yves makes the most salient point – we need to do more with less, not just try and keep business as usual and deal with different pollutants down the track.

  2. Knot Me

    Recently, in my area there has been fierce debate about solar arrays put up on farm land. Some complain about how awful they look and its hard to disagree, but also, there has been discussion about whether or not these arrays would leech unwanted contaminants into the drinking water supply.

    1. digi_owl

      On a different note, i have seen some recent talk about dual use by putting the solar panels up high enough for farm equipment to fit underneath. Thus allowing both power generation and produce growth (or animal grazing).

      1. upstater

        > i have seen some recent talk

        That’s what it is New York State. Talk. The only place where I’ve seen panels elevated are in suburban parking lots, never on ag land. Raising panels sufficiently high for crops, livestock and agricultural machinery is not cheap. Every utility scale solar installation around here is perhaps 2m off the ground (allows for seasonal pitch adjustments) and is the width of a single panel (1.5-2m). Raising panels and spacing for productive agricultural would require a lattice frame holding multiple panels, adding more cost and weight. Private Equity owners wouldn’t do this. Talk is very cheap.

      2. NickLeigh

        Ever hear of photosynthesis? Not much grows in the shade.
        Vehicle storage and atop buildings, that’s OK.

        1. tevhatch

          Done right the area can be used to grow plants that require shading. The problem tends to be clearance (height) adds capital costs.

    2. Louis Fyne

      Solar panels on farmland (which is potentially land given back to nature) is idiotic—unless the land is in the southwest and using aquifer or river water.

      From a utilitarian perspective, it is much better to mandate in the state legislature that any new big box store and institutional building more than X sq. feet of a footprint have a flat roof and solar panels or have an easement on which a company can build solar panels

      1. Starry Gordon

        Also solar parking lots and roadways. The problems mentioned above are technical problems which can be solved if anyone wants to do it. Here in New York City, I’ve mentioned the use of solar energy for electricity and heat; the collectors can be installed on top of city-owned buildings where the space is currently unused. I don’t even get a reply to my fact-salted letters. I suppose this may be a sign that the fix is already in for favored investors.

    3. TimH

      …whether or not these arrays would leech unwanted contaminants into the drinking water supply.

      Er, what? That’s just FUD. Solar panels are electrical, so sealed against water ingress. So they can’t leak anything. And inside is just PV wafers with metal tape interconnects anyway.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Um, has the durability of that seal been tested over time? There are a lot of corrosive materials in landfills. Unless the panels were well segregated, I would not be so confident.

    4. heresy101

      Contaminants is just FUD and fossil fuel propaganda.

      Solar arrays on farmland will become more common because Agrivoltaics is a whole new utilization of farmland.

      The InSPIRE project found five central elements that lead to agrivoltaics success, summarized as “the five C’s“:

      Climate, Soil, and Environmental Conditions — The ambient conditions of a location must be appropriate for both solar generation and the desired crops or ground cover.
      Configurations, Solar Technologies, and Designs — The choice of solar technology, the site layout, and other infrastructure can affect everything from how much light reaches the solar panels to whether a tractor, if needed, can drive under the panels. “This infrastructure will be in the ground for the next 25 years, so you need to get it right for your planned use. It will determine whether the project succeeds,” said James McCall, an NREL researcher working on InSPIRE.
      Crop Selection and Cultivation Methods, Seed and Vegetation Designs, and Management Approaches — Agrivoltaic projects should select crops or ground covers that will thrive under panels in their local climate and that are profitable in local markets.
      Compatibility and Flexibility — Agrivoltaics should be designed to accommodate the competing needs of solar owners, solar operators, and farmers or landowners to allow for efficient agricultural activities.
      Collaboration and Partnerships — For any project to succeed, communication and understanding between groups is crucial.

      The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today announced $8 million for six solar energy research projects across six states and the District of Columbia that will provide new economic opportunities for farmers, rural communities, and the solar industry. The funding supports agrivoltaics — the co-location of agricultural production and solar energy generation on the same land — and aims to reduce barriers to utility-and community-scale solar energy deployment while maximizing benefits for farmers and local communities.

  3. skippy

    Even with the nastiness that is required to create solar panels the big issue is the Quality[tm] of the install. Its control devices, mountings e.g. improper alloy bases to frames without rubber gaskets et al], roof sorted properly both structural and protective coatings under it, basicaly a roof is the most weathered part of any structure and everything on it needs to be sorted correctly before an install.

    The stuff I see on roofs is not encouraging, not to mention yearly cleaning of it, both panels and the roof.

  4. Lexx

    We had 23 solar panels installed about 10 years ago. We’ve removed them all (by professionals) once to replace the roofing due to hail damage. It was an expensive PITA that doesn’t come up in the conversation when you’re considering ‘going solar’; they will tell you the panels are hail resistant and they were. It was the roofing that wasn’t covered by the panels that took the beating. We’ve also had micro-converters go out that had to be replace by an electrician.

    The latest outage was repaired remotely. My husband had to persistently hound the company that installed them to get this done, and given the time of year, you can imagine where our request-that escalated-into-a-demand as the months passed, figured into that business owner’s priorities. Installing solar panels are not attention-. maintenance-. and/or expense-free for the duration of their use.

    We are not discouraged however and have discussed adding more panels, while trying not to think about the cost of replacing them altogether. We were told the current set should last 25 years, so allegedly we have another 15 to wrap our heads around it. I’ll be 80 or dead…. fingers crossed!

  5. Chas

    I’m suspicious of this story because I have some panels that are about 30 years old and still producing electricity. Solar panels have no moving parts to wear out. There was a discussion on this subject here a year or two ago and someone said panels being produced today are flimsier and their flexibility causes wire connections to break over time. However, the solution to that problem is to mount the panels on a firm backing. There was no information in the article about how the author thinks solar panels deteriorate and why the 15 year estimate. Maybe the solar industry is setting an arbitrary use by date to encourage people to needlessly replace their panels so as to make more money.

    1. TimH

      The basic PV wear mechanism is that the crystal lattice is damaged as each photon displaces an electron causing current flow. So output per lumen degrades with current delivery. That’s the physics. Additionally, thermal stresses cause micro-cracking on each PV wafer which reduce efficacy.

  6. Jabura Basaidai

    this discussion is kinda deja vu for me – seems there was a discussion about it earlier this week – the consensus was that panels last 25+ years and fade in power generation rather than just ceasing output – the other issue regarding the environmental cost to extract the materials to produce not only solar panels but also wind generators and batteries does not become part of the conversation unfortunately – here in Michigan they are talking about a nickel mine in the UP which isn’t going over well with folks – at times it seems to me that Gore Vidal was correct in stating, “Think of the earth as a living organism being attacked by billions of bacteria whose numbers double every forty years. Either the host dies or the virus dies, or both die.” as a bacterial species we ain’t too smart.

  7. tevhatch

    Wind power too. Apparently according to a video from Talasbuan, a low impact farmer in Sweden, whole areas of farmland in Sweden are now under risk of being condemned because of the shedding of PFAS and other toxic chemicals off turbine blades.

  8. Susan the other

    All of these resources are finite. Solar tech will buy time, it will extend the supply of oil, and best of all it will focus our industries on efficient recycling. Recycling coming of age is the best news I’ve heard in a long time. I’m feeling optimistic as well about the future of quantum computing. According to Michio Kanu, the race is on to decode photosynthesis, which means we will gradually manage to synthesize a source of critical energy within industry. Mind boggling. At first I thought, Oh quantum – now we can screw things up exponentially. But the prospect of dealing with all our problems on the quantum level sounds properly “circular” as the above article mentions. Thanks for posting this.

  9. LY

    Smacks of what-about-ism. Electronics in general have an unresolved waste problem. How many billions of smartphones and flatpanel TVs are out there that have lower operating life? What about all the fracking, uncapped wells, etc.

  10. juno mas

    Yves, without doubt radical conservation is the essential solution to pollution of the atmosphere (climate change) and to pollution on the planet (land and sea). Articles like this one are not informed in any way. The land pollution from automobiles (heavily recycled) is greater than “junked” PV panels.

    The best way to convince the US and Europe (developed nations) to radically conserve is to put these new energy sources (PV panels) within view of the predominate power users (the City). It obviates an externality of oil based power sources. Then let inventive designers install PV with useful and semi-camouflaged methods. Visual pollution may do the trick that landfills cannot (out of sight, ought of mind).

    1. juno mas

      …at this very moment I’m looking at the giant offshore Oil Platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel. Six and seven miles offshore they can still spoil a stunning marine and islands view. It was the 1969 oil spill from one of these rigs that catalyzed the environmental movement. (The Supremes just confirmed the legality of California’s ban on further development off our coast.)

  11. Geoff

    This article lost all credibility at the mention of a 15-year lifespan of PVs (uncited, of course). Solar panels, like anything, experience degradation over time, but the loss in production capacity is extremely slight. And this isn’t theoretical—solar photovoltaics are a mature technology already scaled out and we have real-life examples of decades-old PVs to measure.

    So what is the point of this article? More anti-renewables FUD and Whataboutism? We’re to be afraid of “mountains of trash” from PVs specifically, when that problem is and has been far greater for noxious, resource-intensive, and definitely unrecyclable fossil fuel infrastructure that renewables are seeking to replace? What about the well-documented issues with other construction and e-waste, at a scale that will never be equalled by renewable infrastructure, no matter how bullish our forecasts?

    Not only that, but even (buried deep down) in this essay are solutions to this problem, which puts the facts presented very at odds with the scary headline. This just seems very biased and presented in bad-faith, like so much similar coverage here. I get that you want to pour cold-water on the more utopian takes on renewables and impress upon us that it’s not the (only) answer. And I’m agreed that wider ecological overshoot is as serious a problem as carbon intensity, but that’s no reason to present useful idiocy and nihilistic “There Is No Alternative” propaganda from the oil industry!

    1. Beau

      Thank you Geoff. I own a 40 year old RV that has a single 30 year old solar panel on it that charges the house battery. While I may be looking to upgrade that in the near future (solar tech has come a long way in 30 years on top of 30 years of degradation), I’ve taken weeks long trips in it and never had to worry about whether the heater will cut out in the middle of the night or whether the lights will turn on.

      (not from you but upthread and I’ve seen the same here before): “there has been discussion about whether or not these arrays would leech unwanted contaminants into the drinking water supply” yeah, we should probably just keep fracking and burning oil instead.

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