Solar photovoltaic systems, solar thermal and concentrating solar power technologies have a life expectancy of 30 years. As the volume of solar installations in the US grows, the industry is planning ahead to create panel recycling programs. SEIA members are currently engaged in developing collection and recycling processes for the solar industry, and are committed to guiding both state and federal regulations that support safe and effective collection and recycling models.
Photovoltaic panels are designed to last more than 25 years, and many manufacturers back their products with performance guarantees backed by warranties. The lifespan of a solar photovoltaic panel is approximately 20-30 years, while the lifetime of an inverter is approximately 10 years. Therefore, many solar products have not yet reached end-of-life, and in fact, panels installed in the early 1980s are still performing at levels nearly equal to the installation performance level. Thus, even accounting for the dramatic growth of the industry, annual PV waste will not exceed 10,000 tons until after 2014, and will not exceed 100,000 tons until after 2017.
The viability of a recycling program depends on a sufficient waste stream; currently, end-of-life panels do not produce a viable waste stream. Even though the numbers are low, many SEIA members already operate take-back and recycling programs for their products.
Many SEIA members recognize the importance of an entirely sustainable product lifecycle and adhere to ISO 1400 and ISO 2600 management standards, as well as implementing collection and recycling programs. Additionally, many solar companies are addressing recycling concerns not only in the U.S., but abroad through membership in PV Cycle, a European-based voluntary agreement which facilitates collection and recycling of modules at end-of-life.
Current Recycling Regulations
End-of-life disposal of solar products in the US is governed by the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and state policies that govern waste. To be governed by RCRA, panels must be classified as hazardous waste. To be classified as hazardous, panels must fail to pass the Toxicity Characteristics Leach Procedure test (TCLP test). Most panels pass the TCLP test, and thus are classified as non-hazardous and are not regulated.