The Importance of a Circular Economy for End-of-Life PV Modules in the U.S.
This educational article was provided by:
Jennifer Martin, Environmental Program Development Specialist, Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, solar power is the fastest-growing energy source in the world and this growth will continue to rise. At the moment, only a few states have adopted solar PV end-of-life policy requirements. Therefore, a lot of modules that have reached their end-of-life will end up in landfills. Early failures, catastrophic events, and system upgrades will compound waste management issues of end-of-life PV modules. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency finds a substantial increase in solar modules reaching end-of-life in the 2020s and 2030s, with forecasts of 60 to 78 million cumulative tons of modules entering the waste streams globally by 2050.
Research by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) finds the design life of a PV module to be around 30 years. This does not account for early-loss failures which can occur through a range of factors including damages during the manufacturing process and transit, improper handling, and exposure to severe weather events. IRENA reports that most PV module waste today is due to early-loss scenarios and is estimated to contribute to more than 80% of the recycling market.
The dramatic decline in PV equipment costs has also given system owners’ opportunities to reevaluate the overall efficiency of systems. Many U.S. utility-scale and commercial and industrial (C&I) plant owners are now “repowering” systems by replacing modules to increase overall performance and power ratings and extend the life of the plants. NREL research has found that the lifetime estimations on these large-scale plants can happen as early as 10 years after the initial installation.
Governments are now beginning to see the overall value in addressing a circular PV economy. In 2012 the European Union’s Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) established PV module disposal and recycling guidelines. Extended-producer-responsibility principles are is at its core, holding the producers responsible for the recycling and treatment of end-of-life PV modules. Currently, there are no national U.S. requirements for end-of-life PV modules, however, ideas for national and state recycling programs have been evaluated. In 2015, the California Department of Toxic Substance Control classified all PV modules as Hazardous Waste. This classification has created barriers for recycling PV modules in California. California is currently in the process of reclassifying PV modules as Universal Waste, making it easier to collect, transport, and more cost-effective to recycle. In 2017, Washington State passed the Photovoltaic Module Stewardship and Takeback Program. This program requires all manufacturers selling modules within the state to be held responsible for reuse and recycling at no cost to the system owner. In 2019, both North Carolina and New Jersey passed similar bills requiring the development of recommendations for regulations to best manage end-of-life options. Illinois, Minnesota, and other states are currently working on strategies to address the management of end-of-life modules.