As we transition from long summer nights to fall, the autumnal equinox reminds us that Solarize the Kenai is nearing the end of its 2021 season. Inletkeeper proudly supports this volunteer-led effort to help make clean energy more affordable to Kenai Peninsula residents. In 2020, 84 people added photovoltaic (PV) rooftop panels to their homes and businesses through Solarize, investing over half a million dollars in local clean energy infrastructure and adding 502.44 kilowatts of clean energy to the grid. This collective effort had an impressive impact on reducing local emissions — 236 tons CO2/year, to be exact — which will continue over the entire life of the panels!
So what happens to old solar panels, when they need to be recycled? With no moving parts, solar panels have a long lifespan of about 30 years. They continue to work beyond that time, just less efficiently. On average, they lose 0.5% efficiency per year. So after 25 years, a solar system will be 87.5% as efficient as it was when it was new.
The absolute best use for old solar panels is re-use. For instance, when the Kachemak Bay Conservation Center removed their old panels, the electrician repurposed them for use on his cabin. The smaller structure needed much less electricity and so the lower efficiency of the older panels was not a concern.
But what about when the solar panels reach the ultimate end of their useful life? Some, but not all, panels contain hazardous materials, such as cadmium, copper, or arsenic, which can leach into waterways if not disposed of properly. 80% of a solar panel by weight is glass and aluminum, both of which are very easy to recycle. All the individual components of panels – metal, glass, silicon, wires, and rare elements gallium and indium – are recyclable, but there is currently no incentive to do so in Alaska, where the solar industry is still nascent. In Europe and some parts of the U.S. where the solar industry has been operating for longer, there are regulations that require producers to design panels to be more easily recyclable and build de-manufacturing cost into their product. Better laws and helpful regulations like these encourage recycling and proper disposal.
We need better laws in Alaska that help the solar industry circularize their supply chain: whoever builds it is legally responsible for recycling it or taking it out of commission when it has reached the end of its life. Toxic waste is toxic waste, and whether it’s produced by green energy or the oil industry, it needs to be dealt with. Solar is here to stay, and the future holds more solar photovoltaic and more batteries. We’re all in this together. Alaska’s solar industry, investors, manufacturers, installers, and users are responsible for finding the best way to bring solar fully into the circular economy.