End-of-Life Solar PV Panel Decommissioning & Recycling
Updated: May 24, 2022
An installation in reverse is what a solar decommissioning project scope looks like. Skid steers are used to collect large quantities of panels that are stacked in uniform for removal. In this vein of a reverse install, equipment for the project should come full circle by reusing or recycling the materials for remanufacturing as part of the panel recovery plan. Having a recovery plan in place with PV recycling vendors will be key to fast and efficient decommissioning efforts.
At the end of a solar farm’s life or a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), owners have a few options for moving forward. They can repower the plant, in full or partially, or they can decommission the project and break down equipment, returning land back through revitalization efforts. For larger projects, considerations must be made, weighing the cost of equipment removal and reinstallation versus decommissioning altogether.
Utilities are rapidly scaling solar projects
Leading states are supercharging their utility solar capacity. Texas will add 10 GW of utility solar by the end of 2022, and California an additional 3.2 GW.
Waste and recycling efforts for the Solar Industry are on the rise, especially as new decommissioning projects occur. In large scope removal projects, panels can be identified for repurposing, refurbishment, or recycling. Technological and efficiency standards are quickly pushing the early decommissioning of solar panels in an effort to replace them with newer, more efficient panels, but that doesn’t mean every panel has reached its true End-of-Life (EOL). Some panels may still be usable and can be resold or refurbished. As a result, many local and state governments, like New York, have developed protocols for decommissioning solar panels from the residential to the utility scale.
The fact remains the solar industry is skyrocketing in growth, despite any short-term logistical or policy setbacks. As such, the need to process and reclaim solar panels through the decommissioning phase is a high priority for getting ahead of a huge waste wave. Some of the reasons for utilities to proceed with managing EOL panels responsibly include ESG metrics reporting, improved investor relations, climate change mitigation, addressing scope emissions, and fostering a new circular economy market in the solar industry.
Decommissioning comes in a series of phases that include planning, dismantling, demolition, recycling, recovery of materials and structures, and the restoration of the land. A major factor in the decommissioning process is the planning of the deconstruction process, where equipment is removed for compliance and recycling or disposal efforts take place.
Decommissioning and solar material management
State and local decommissioning management policies need to be considered first and foremost. California, Hawaii, Arizona, Washington, New Jersey, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Minnesota have started developing policies to address EOL material requirements during decommissioning.
Some options for handling EOL material are refurbishing the solar plant and panels that are causing deficiencies, extending PPAs to cover rehabilitation costs, or decommissioning and removing all hardware. These decisions are often made in the project’s development stage, an exit strategy for closure or continuation of power generation, or the end of Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs).
Decommissioning costs fluctuate with the waste and recycling markets. The handling of PVs for refurbishment and recycling also stands at a dramatic range, upwards of $58 per panel in some cases for well-known PV recycling companies. Items needed to be recycled:
Plastic junction box
Battery backup systems
Manufacturer responsibility for solar panel End-of-Life management
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy's Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) released a Photovoltaics End-of-Life Action Plan in March 2022. SETO outlined an 18-page Action Plan aiming to better understand the state of EOL panels through the development of a database that tracks materials, quantity, age, location, cause of EOL, and handling methods for modules.
Proactive manufacturer measures
Manufacturers currently have an opportunity to be proactive about recycling measures. They can partner with companies who will deliver solar panels, refurbishing, recycling, and cleanup efforts, educate the client on why EOL for solar projects is an important topic, and add this data to their Sustainability Report and share efforts.
In a recent Deloitte assessment of company opportunities for growth, a major theme transpired, transparency. Transparency is the theme that will push company growth and allow customers to connect with the true value of a company’s offerings. Transparency is necessary for manufacturers to practice because it shows customers they can trust you, your products, and your ethics. Transparency is a huge movement, and ESGs are just the start for delivering verifiable metrics to stakeholders.
Mandated take-back programs
In some cases, like the European Union and the state of Washington, the manufacturer is responsible for financing and implementing take-back programs for reuse. Both entities require 85% of PV modules sold to be recycled at no cost to the consumer.
As of now, only a few manufacturers have developed programs for take-back efforts. The opportunity for additional solar manufacturers to take part and further develop their business model is vast. The benefits of taking part in a program or partnering with a leader in solar waste include:
Supports ESG goals for waste and recycling efforts
Improved value-add from the customer perspective
Taking part now helps customers seek solutions to perceive the manufacturer as a leader
Helps customers who want to do the right thing
Can be streamlined as an official branded program
Know what you’re paying for
According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Best Practices at the End of the Photovoltaic System Performance Period, decommissioning rates range from $300-400/kW to $40/kW for panels to be repurposed or results, $100/kW to recycle.
The recycling market changes daily; however, just because you’ve been given a recycling quote of over $40 per panel doesn’t mean that’s what the entire industry is charging. Avoid headaches by shopping around, or better yet find a partner in the PV recycling industry with a network of vendors they work with to bring you the right price and deliverables based on your goals.
Choosing the right solar decommissioning partners
Decommissioning a solar site costs, on average, about $368,000/1-MW for a ground-mounted PV System. Choosing the right partners to guide the process and support you throughout the cleanup will help alleviate some of the headaches and costs.
Green Clean Solar has prioritized sustainable waste practices for decommissioning efforts. We prioritize a turnkey process for decommissioning plans and implement a streamlined waste removal and recycling process.
Want a no-hassle, cost-effective partner for your next decommissioning project?
Contact us at 770-229-7168, or
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