Solar Panel Recycling in California

California Solar Energy Production 

Solar energy in California is produced in two ways, namely Solar Thermal and Solar PV methods. Solar Thermal uses the concentrated heat of the sunlight to turn fluid into steam. The steam rotates turbines to generate electricity. Electricity is produced through Solar PV when the photons in sunlight agitate or excite the electrons of the silicon cells in the PV module. 

California is deemed as the highest solar power producing state by California’s Energy Commission as it has around 946,740 solar projects and approximately 704 operating solar plants. As per the data released by the Solar Industry Association there are around three thousand solar companies in California. This has also led to the decline in installation prices in the last five years by nearly 50%. As of May 2018, California has approved a statewide solar mandate, requiring the installation of solar panels in all home construction projects. 

California as of 2018, produced 24,464.0 MW power via solar installations statewide. This production is enough to power 6,369,000 homes. The percentage of the states’ electricity produced from solar is 19.02%. 

The total solar investment in the state of California is $60 billion and the solar industry has created around 76,838 jobs via 2,807 companies, 486 manufacturers, 1332 installers and 989 other solar-related activities. It is estimated that California will produce almost 14,683 MW over the next 5 years through its Solar installations

California Annual Solar Installation
Source: https://www.seia.org/sites/default/files/2019-03/Federal_2019Q1_California.pdf
State Wise Solar Power Capacity In The Usa

As per the above figures, since half of the total solar power produced in the USA is in California, this implies that in the future, California will be the state to produce maximum PV solar waste. This situation has been realized by California’s Department of Toxic Substances (DTSC) and they are now bringing attention to this cause by proposing to include used PV Solar Panels in the list of universal waste.  

USA Govt. Regulations Regarding Solar Panel Waste

Unfortunately, at present, there are no governing bodies in the US that can regulate the fate of old solar panels. These panels are currently filling landfills, instead of being recycled. 

Commercial entities in the US comply with the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for disposing of used and old solar panels, but due to the lack of regulation on disposing solar panels at residential levels, people have no choice but to send old PV solar panels to the landfills. 

California however, had enacted SB 489 in 2015, classifying solar panels as hazardous waste. Therefore, old sod solar panels in California are handled as per rules and regulations for hazardous waste. 

In 2018, California had moved to procure authorization for its universal waste regulations from the EPA, which will include federally regulated PV modules as well as state-regulated PV modules in its regulations. This will enable easier and cost-effective PV module waste determination methods. 

PV Solar Panel Waste Management in California 

California will soon be dealing with a large amount of old PV solar panels. Recently, California’s Department of Toxic Substances (DTSC), has proposed to consider PV solar panels as universal waste and be managed by California’s Universal Waste Management Program.

If not treated properly, the sudden influx of old PV solar modules in the coming years will have a major impact on California landfills and will create environmental hazards in the long run, which goes against the idea of green energy to begin with. 

To address the above issue, DTSC held a seminar recently to propose regulations regarding the disposal of solar panels. DTSC held the seminar to propose the inclusion of PV solar panel under ‘Universal Waste’ as opposed to ‘Hazardous Waste’, that it is considered currently under. 

Handling PV solar panels as universal waste will open opportunities for businesses for more effective disposal as well as recycling avenues. 

California’s Universal Waste Program 

Universal waste is a category of hazardous waste, generated by households and businesses. These generally pose a lower threat to human and environmental health. 

In California, universal waste is handled and disposed of effectively as compared to typical hazardous waste, that has specific needs for disposal. In case the regulations proposed by the DTSC pass, PV solar panels will be included on the list of hazardous waste. It will then behave to handled under California’s Universal Waste Program. PV solar panels will be sent to a facility authorized by the program to collect, recycle or dispose of the material . 

Solar Panel Recycling 

1. Silicon-based Solar Panel Recycling 

  • The recycling of Silicon-based solar panels begins with separating aluminum and glass parts of the panel.
  • All the glass can be reused and metal parts can be used to re-mold cell frames. The remaining material is exposed to a thermal processing unit with a temp of 500° C. This method separates the cell elements.
  • Silicon cells are left behind after this process and can be further reused 
  • After thermal treatment, the hardware is physically separated which is either reused or refined further.
  • Silicon particles are etched with acid and these particles or wafers are used to manufacture new modules. 

2. Thin Film based Solar Panel Recycling 

  • They go under the shredder in the first step.
  • They are then hammer milled to make the particle not more than 4-5mm in size.
  • This process breaks the lamination inside and can be separated.
  • The remaining material consists of both solid and liquid particles.
  • Liquids undergo precipitation and dewatering and then metal plating to separate semiconductor materials.
  • Solid matter is removed via a vibrating surface to clear out interlayer materials.
  • Finally, it goes through rinsing to leave behind pure glass

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