California has been in the forefront of the move for rooftop solar power. Beginning in 2006, the state, focused on how to incent people to take up solar power, provided large subsidies on homeowners who installed photovoltaic panels and, as a result, build up the largest solar market in the country.
As often happens, ideology took over for practical thinking and the state had no comprehensive plan to dispose of those solar panels. Panels purchased under those programs are nearing the end of their typical life cycle. Almost two decades and an estimated 1.3 million rooftops later, the long-term effects are starting to show up.
Many are already winding up in landfills, where in some cases, they could potentially contaminate groundwater with toxic heavy metals such as lead, selenium and cadmium.
To make matters worse, California’s environmental laws and permitting process make it extremely difficult to dispose of solar panels in the state because of the hazardous metals.
One company, We Recycle Solar, tries to recycle the materials. The vast majority of We Recycle Solar’s business comes from California, but the company has no facilities in the state. Instead, the panels are trucked to a site in Yuma, Arizona.
It’s not just a problem in California but also nationwide. A new solar project was installed every 60 seconds in 2021, and the solar industry is expected to quadruple in size between 2020 and 2030. Yet the economics of recycling the panels just is not viable in the long term without government subsidies. Although the cost of breaking apart the panels and extracting the rare metals (most of which come from China) without shattering the glass components is expensive and only gets $2-$4 worth of recyclables from the process.
A similar problem is growing in relation to wind power now that we are starting to see the life cycle of windmill blades approach and there are increasing requirements for landfills that can take the fiberglass and associated waste.
Maybe, just maybe, we need to think some of these things through better before we blindly jump in.