The problem of recycling solar energy panels has been in the news lately:
“The biggest issue is the misconception the recoverable materials are worth a lot,” [solar recycler Sam] Vanderhoof says. “We can pull out about 94 percent of the materials — but the market rate is $3.50 [per panel].” Most of that value is in silver. Vanderhoof thinks recycling costs could come down with scale, but the difficulty, he says, is “jump-starting the process.” Europe’s experience with mandating recycling with dedicated funding could be a guide.
A 2012 update to European Union electronics rules included specific regulations for solar panel recycling. As a result, EU countries have a more robust recycling program. This year, France opened what’s believed to be the first plant dedicated solely to recycling solar panels.
Vanderhoof would like to see a similar system set up in the U.S. “Like recycling here for cans and bottles,” he says. “Or if you go buy a new TV [in California], you pay upfront for the recycling.”
According to this expert working in the field, people should be paying into a recycling fund when they buy their panels. Right now, that isn’t happening, and panels are coming online in a large wave. That means somebody is going to have to cover that cost when it becomes a crisis — either the people who own the panels or everybody else. (Have you noticed how some of the rooftop solar companies say you get to keep the panels after 20 years?)
Which of those will be the case depends on whether solar energy companies can remain a fashionable and powerful political lobby. At the moment, we should just note how much of the cost of solar is not included in the price when people decide to deploy them.