California landfills are filling up with toxic solar panels

California is a pioneer in promoting rooftop solar energy, building biggest solar market in the US Over 20 years and 1.3 million roofs After that, the invoice will be due for payment.

Starting in 2006, the state focused on how to encourage people to use solar energy, subsidizing homeowners who installed photovoltaic panels but did not have a comprehensive plan to phase them out. Now, panels purchased under those programs are nearing the end of their 25-year life.

Many have ended up in landfills, where ingredients containing toxic heavy metals such as selenium and cadmium can contaminate groundwater.

“People just don’t realize that there are toxic materials in those electronics,” said Natalie Click, a doctoral candidate in materials science at the University of Arizona who researches the issue. . . “But once it’s crushed and put in a landfill, a lot of those chemicals and toxic materials leak into your groundwater.”

Sam Vanderhoof, a solar industry expert, says that only 1 in 10 panels is actually recycled, according to estimates drawn from the International Renewable Energy Agency’s data on decommissioned panels. and from industry leaders.

The potential challenge of handling polluting waste trucks illustrates how advanced environmental policy can create unforeseen hazards on the road.

“The industry is supposed to be green,” says Vanderhoof. “But in reality, it’s all about the money.”

California comes early with solar. The small government rebates did not reduce the price of solar panels or encourage them to adopt. until 2006, when the California Public Utilities Commission established the California Solar Initiative. That granted $3.3 billion in subsidies for installing solar panels on rooftops.

The measure exceeded its goal, lowering the price of solar panels and increasing the state’s share of solar-generated electricity. Because of that and other measures, such as requirements that utilities buy part of their electricity from renewable sources, solar power is nowaccount for 15% of the power of the state.

But as California passes its renewable energy program, focusing on rebates and – more recently – proposed solar tax, questions about how to dispose of toxic waste accumulate years later. that was never fully resolved. Now, both the regulator and the panel maker realize they don’t have the capacity to handle what happens next.

Serasu Duran, assistant professor at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, Canada, said: “This trash can probably arrive sooner than we expected and it will be a huge amount of waste. “However, while all the focus is on building this renewable capacity, there is not much consideration for the uptime of these technologies.”

Duran co-wrote a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, noting that “the industry’s capacity is not prepared for the large amounts of possible waste.”

That’s not just a problem in California, but across the country. About 140,000 sheets are available Setting every day in the United States, and the solar industry is expected tofour times scale from 2020 to 2030.

In spite of 80% of a typical photovoltaic panel made of recyclable materials, it is extremely difficult to disassemble them and recover the glass, silver and silicon.

AJ Orben, vice president ofWe recycle solar energy, a Phoenix-based company that specializes in breaking down panels and extracting valuable metals while dealing with toxic elements. “That was never a question.”

Much of We Recycle Solar’s business comes from California, but the company has no facilities in the state. Instead, the panels were shipped to a location in Yuma, Ariz. That’s because California’s strict licensing system for hazardous materials makes it extremely difficult to set up shop, Orben said.

Recycling solar panels is not a simple process. Highly specialized equipment and workers are required to separate the aluminum frame and junction box from the panel without breaking it into shards of glass. Specializesfurnace used to heat the plates to recover silicon. In most states, panels are classified as hazardous materials, requiringexpensive restrictions on packaging, transportation and storage.

Orben says the economics of the process don’t make a compelling case for recycling.

Only about $2 to $4 worth of materials are recovered from each panel. Much of the disposal costs are tied to labor, and Orben says even large-scale recycling of panels willNot save more.

Most of the research on photovoltaic panels has focused on the recovery of solar-grade silicon to make recycling economically viable.

That skews the economic incentives against recycling. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that it costs about $20 to $30 to recycle a panel compared to $1 to $2 to send it to a landfill.

Most experts assume that’s where the majority of consoles are ending up right now. But that’s anyone’s guess. Click says there is no unified system “to track where all these decommissioned dashboards are going.”

The California Department of Toxic Substances collected the first data on panels recycled by general waste handlers in 2021. For handlers accepting more than 200 pounds or generating more than 10,000 pounds sheet, the DTSC has counted 335 panels that are accepted for recycling, said Sanford Nax. an agency spokesman.

The department expects the number of solar panels installed over the next decade to exceed hundreds of millions of panels in California alone, and recycling will become even more important as panels become cheaper with shorter lifespans. become more popular.

A lack of consumer awareness about the toxicity of the materials in the sheets and how to handle them is part of the problem, experts say.

Amanda Bybee, co-founder of SolarRecycle.org, a website that aims to help people understand how to recycle solar panels and how the process works.

The site lists two locations in California that can recycle the console, but Bybee notes that the site is based on user-submitted information and is incomplete. At least one of the listed California locations, Fabtech Enterprises, sends control panels to confidential recycling partners offsite.

Last year, the new DTSC regulation went into effect that reclassified plates, change how they can be collected and transported. Previously, all panels were required to be disposed of as hazardous waste upon unloading, which limited transportation and storage.

Both corporate and residential consumers, or generators as they are called in the recycling industry, must transport the cells themselves to certified hazardous waste or recycling facilities. With little follow-up, the frequency is unknown.

Two men install solar panels on a roof.

Solar panels are currently classified as general waste and can be collected at more than 400 general waste facilities in California, where they are then evaluated and shipped to disposal facilities, reuse or recycle. Above, solar panels are installed on a roof.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Now, the panels are classified as general waste and can be collected at more than 400 general waste facilities in California, where they are then evaluated and shipped to disposal facilities, reuse or recycle. The new regulations aim to make it easier for people to submit their placards, but it doesn’t directly address the next step – recycling.

“What is that [rule] We Recycle Solar’s Orben says. “It doesn’t change the way that material is actually processed.”

In 2016, Solar Energy Industry Assn., a non-profit trade association for the US solar industry, started a program to recycle panels. Robert Nicholson, director of PV Recycling at the association, said the association aims to help the group’s recycling partners – five to date – “develop efficient, compliant recycling services about the cost of end-of-life modules”.

“Most recyclers are already existing recyclers; Jen Bristol, Senior Communications Manager for Solar Energy, says they’re mostly making e-waste or they’re making glass. “So we had to work with them to take that leap, to say: ‘We believe the processes you’re using can be a good fit for the technology.'” The association also does. Working with regulators to draft legislation to reduce the number of boards headed to landfill.

Government subsidies are one way to make solar panel recycling economically viable for emitters, who currently bear many of the costs of recycling.

In Europe, a recently issued regulation called the European Union’s Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive places a responsibility on manufacturers to support their products through through responsible disposal at the end of the life cycle. It requires all manufacturers that produce panels for EU countries to finance end-of-life collection and recycling.

Similar legislation has been implemented in several US states, including Washington, where the Photovoltaic Module Recall and Management Program will require solar panel manufacturers to sponsor for end-of-life recycling. The initiative was approved in 2017 and will begin implementation in 2025. That is only manufacturer’s liability laws in the United States.

It’s part of a larger strategy in the recycling industry Is called extended manufacturer’s liability, where the cost of recycling is included in the cost of the product at the time of original purchase. Business entities in the product chain – not the public – are responsible for end-of-life costs, including recycling costs.

Jigar Shah, co-founder of Generate Capital, a fund that invests in sustainable infrastructure, says the problem can be solved at the very beginning of the product chain – by the manufacturers. He says policymakers need to ask manufacturers to come up with a standard design that makes it easier and cheaper to recycle panels.

“Manufacturers that are forced to work together are much more cost-effective…where they try to dramatically reduce the cost of all of that. That happens through policy,” he said. “It doesn’t happen through people who opt-in.”

Illustration of the recycling logo formed from solar panels

In spite of 80% of a typical photovoltaic panel made of recyclable materials, it is extremely difficult to disassemble them and recover the glass, silver and silicon.

(Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times)

In April 2022, Santa Monica ends a solar panel recycling pilot program in partnership with the California Product Regulatory Council, a public-private partnership. The management board surveyed local residential solar owners and found that many, not knowing what to do with end-of-life panels, called installers for help.

“We found that solar installers were our best contact for finding out about the number of panels out of service in our area,” said Drew Johnstone, sustainability analyst for Santa Monica. we. “Some contractors end up just having to pile them up in their warehouses, because there’s no good solution to where to take them.”

Johnstone says the universal waste reclassification has made a big difference, cutting costs and the paperwork required to dispose of the modules and more handlers being able to accept plates from the machine. electricity generation.

“It’s going to be a really big deal for a number of years,” said Johnstone. “So it would require local, county, state and federal governments to also come up with a plan for all these panels to reach the end of their lifespan in 10 to 15 years.”

Kisela is a special correspondent.

https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2022-07-14/california-rooftop-solar-pv-panels-recycling-danger California landfills are filling up with toxic solar panels

Edmuns DeMars

Edmund DeMarche is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Edmund DeMarche joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing edmund@ustimespost.com.

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