Monday numbers: 23 million solar panels will someday die. Should we recycle, reuse or throw away?

By: - January 10, 2022 6:00 am

There are at least 23.3 million solar panels on utility-scale farms in North Carolina, and some day those panels will sputter out and die.

What will become of these panels when they pass? In 2019, lawmakers asked how solar panels will be disposed of and if they present a risk of leaching hazardous waste. They also wanted to know the costs involved with recycling, reuse or putting them in a municipal solid waste landfill. Even though there is adequate landfill space, the report recommends prioritizing reuse and recycling the panels rather than throwing them away.

Solar panels contain glass, polymer, aluminum and traces of copper, zinc, silver, tin and lead, according to a report produced by state environmental officials in 2020. There are many types of panels and films. One panel manufacturer does produce a model that contains cadmium, but that composes a small number. Solar panels that contain hazardous materials “pose minimal risks to the environment and human health during normal operation,” the report says. If the panels break, there is a chance a small amount of toxic contaminants could leach into the environment.

Although the first round of solar panels won’t be due for recycling/reuse/disposal for another 10 years, the Environmental Management Commission is considering whether to designate solar panels from utility-scale farms  as “universal waste.” (Panels from household installations are not subject to universal waste or hazardous waste requirements.) Universal waste is a subset of hazardous waste, and subject to special disposal rules. It currently only applies to energy storage batteries, which can contain toxic materials. There is already a ban on disposing of lead-acid batteries in municipal solid waste landfills.

The classification — universal, hazardous or run-of-the-mill solid waste — will depend on testing. This is also known as a Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure. There’s a national group devoted to these sorts of studies: the American Society for Testing and Materials. The society needs to adopt a testing standard, that then goes to the EPA for approval. It’s complicated and time-consuming, but ultimately, the generator/manufacturer of the solar panel will be required to test it for hazardous materials. Depending on the results, the panel will then be managed under respective waste rules.

Because of the differences in landscape, the eastern two-thirds of the state, particularly east of I-95, have the greatest number of utility-scale solar farms. Robeson County leads the state in number of utility-scale solar farms with 38, followed by Duplin with 25.

As for the number of solar panels, Northampton County ranks first with 1,531,013. Curious about how many solar farms and panels your county has? The report contains a list.

The EMC  is scheduled to discuss designating solar panels as universal waste, as well as the future decommissioning of solar farms, on Thursday, Jan. 13. The regularly scheduled meeting begins at 9 a.m. and can be viewed online.

7,132 megawatts — amount of solar energy capacity installed in North Carolina

859,707 — number of homes that could be supplied by that energy

23.3 million — minimum number of solar panels, also known as photo-voltaic modules, in NC 

76 — number of NC counties with at least one utility-scale solar farm

25 years — productive lifespan for solar panel

20 years — for a wind energy facility

10 years — for an energy storage battery system

500,000 — tons of solar panels currently installed in NC

4,440 — tons of fiberglass wind turbine blades

104 — number of turbines at single farm

0 — number of high-value PV module recycling facilities in NC (Metech, in Creedmoor, can accept them, but ships them to California)

601 — number of solar facilities in North Carolina with generation capacities greater than 1 megawatt (Year 2020)

150 — number to be decommissioned between 2031 and 2035

300 — approximate number of solar facilities that will decommissioned between 2036 and 2040, equivalent to 8.5 million solar panels

150 — number that will be decommissioned after 2040

$83 — amount per kilowatt hour to decommission a PV facility/solar farm, about 4.8% of the system’s installation cost

$43 — average cost per ton, also known as a tipping fee, to dispose of materials in a municipal solid waste landfill

$175 — minimum tipping fee to dispose of hazardous materials in specially designated landfills

27.2-67.8 pounds — range of weights of each solar panel, depending on output capacity

25,000 metric tons — estimated weight of installed utility-scale PV modules in Northampton County, which ranks first in the state for this metric

21,500 — estimated weight in Robeson County, which ranks second

16 to 80 years — range of lifespan of municipal solid waste landfills east of I-95. Craven County has the least amount of time; Johnston has the most

Source: DEQ, EMC report dated Jan. 1, 2021

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.