1.2.3 Panel End-of-Life Management

Concerns about the volume, disposal, toxicity, and recycling of PV panels are addressed in this subsection. To put the volume of PV waste into perspective, consider that by 2050, when PV systems installed in 2020 will reach the end of their lives, it is estimated that the global annual PV panel waste tonnage will be 10% of the 2014 global e-waste tonnage. 40 In the U.S., end-of-life disposal of solar products is governed by the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), as well as state policies in some situations. RCRA separates waste into hazardous (not accepted at ordinary landfill) and solid waste (generally accepted at ordinary landfill) based on a series of rules. According to RCRA, the way to determine if a PV panel is classified as hazardous waste is the Toxic Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) test. This EPA test is designed to simulate landfill disposal and determine the risk of hazardous substances leaching out of the landfill. 41 , 42, 43 Multiple sources report that most modern PV panels (both crystalline silicon and cadmium telluride) pass the TCLP test. 44 , 45 Some studies found that some older (1990s) crystalline silicon panels, and perhaps some newer crystalline silicon panels (specifics are not given about vintage of panels tested), do not pass the lead (Pb) leachate limits in the TCLP test. 46 , 47

The test begins with the crushing of a panel into centimeter-sized pieces. The pieces are then mixed in an acid bath. After tumbling for eighteen hours, the fluid is tested for forty hazardous substances that all must be below specific threshold levels to pass the test. Research comparing TCLP conditions to conditions of damaged panels in the field found that simulated landfill conditions provide overly conservative estimates of leaching for field-damaged panels. 48 Additionally, research in Japan has found no detectable Cd leaching from cracked CdTe panels when exposed to simulated acid rain. 49

Although modern panels can generally be landfilled, they can also be recycled. Even though recent waste volume has not been adequate to support significant PV-specific recycling infrastructure, the existing recycling industry in North Carolina reports that it recycles much of the current small volume of broken PV panels. In an informal survey conducted by the NC Clean Energy Technology Center survey in early 2016, seven of the eight large active North Carolina utility-scale solar developers surveyed reported that they send damaged panels back to the manufacturer and/or to a local recycler. Only one developer reported sending damaged panels to the landfill.

The developers reported at that time that they are usually paid a small amount per panel by local recycling firms. In early 2017, a PV developer reported that a local recycler was charging a small fee per panel to recycle damaged PV panels. The local recycling firm known to authors to accept PV panels described their current PV panel recycling practice as of early 2016 as removing the aluminum frame for local recycling and removing the wire leads for local copper recycling. The remainder of the panel is sent to a facility for processing the non-metallic portions of crushed vehicles, referred to as “fluff” in the recycling industry. 50 This processing within existing general recycling plants allows for significant material recovery of major components, including glass which is 80% of the module weight, but at lower yields than PV-specific recycling plants. Notably almost half of the material value in a PV panel is in the few grams of silver contained in almost every PV panel produced today. In the long-term, dedicated PV panel recycling plants can increase treatment capacities and maximize revenues resulting in better output quality and the ability to recover a greater fraction of the useful materials. 51 PV-specific panel recycling technologies have been researched and implemented to some extent for the past decade, and have been shown to be able to recover over 95% of PV material (semiconductor) and over 90% of the glass in a PV panel. 52

A look at global PV recycling trends hints at the future possibilities of the practice in our country. Europe installed MW-scale volumes of PV years before the U.S. In 2007, a public-private partnership between the European Union and the solar industry set up a voluntary collection and recycling system called PV CYCLE. This arrangement was later made mandatory under the EU’s WEEE directive, a program for waste electrical and electronic equipment. 53 Its member companies (PV panel producers) fully finance the association. This makes it possible for end-users to return the member companies’ defective panels for recycling at any of the over 300 collection points around Europe without added costs. Additionally, PV CYCLE will pick up batches of 40 or more used panels at no cost to the user. This arrangement has been very successful, collecting and recycling over 13,000 tons by the end of 2015. 54

In 2012, the WEEE Directive added the end-of-life collection and recycling of PV panels to its scope. 55 This directive is based on the principle of extended-producer-responsibility. It has a global impact because producers that want to sell into the EU market are legally responsible for end-of-life management. Starting in 2018, this directive targets that 85% of PV products “put in the market” in Europe are recovered and 80% is prepared for reuse and recycling.

The success of the PV panel collection and recycling practices in Europe provides promise for the future of recycling in the U.S. In mid-2016, the US Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) announced that they are starting a national solar panel recycling program with the guidance and support of many leading PV panel producers. 56 The program will aggregate the services offered by recycling vendors and PV manufacturers, which will make it easier for consumers to select a cost-effective and environmentally responsible end-of-life management solution for their PV products. According to SEIA, they are planning the program in an effort to make the entire industry landfill-free. In addition to the national recycling network program, the program will provide a portal for system owners and consumers with information on how to responsibly recycle their PV systems.

While a cautious approach toward the potential for negative environmental and/or health impacts from retired PV panels is fully warranted, this section has shown that the positive health impacts of reduced emissions from fossil fuel combustion from PV systems more than outweighs any potential risk. Testing shows that silicon and CdTe panels are both safe to dispose of in landfills, and are also safe in worst case conditions of abandonment or damage in a disaster. Additionally, analysis by local engineers has found that the current salvage value of the equipment in a utility scale PV facility generally exceeds general contractor estimates for the cost to remove the entire PV system. 57 , 58 , 59

Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) PV Panels

This subsection examines the components of a cadmium telluride (CdTe) PV panel. Research demonstrates that they pose negligible toxicity risk to public health and safety while significantly reducing the public’s exposure to cadmium by reducing coal emissions. As of mid-2016, a few hundred MWs of cadmium telluride (CdTe) panels, all manufactured by the U.S. company First Solar, have been installed in North Carolina.

Questions about the potential health and environmental impacts from the use of this PV technology are related to the concern that these panels contain cadmium, a toxic heavy metal. However, scientific studies have shown that cadmium telluride differs from cadmium due to its high chemical and thermal stability. 18 Research has shown that the tiny amount of cadmium in these panels does not pose a health or safety risk. 19 Further, there are very compelling reasons to welcome its adoption due to reductions in unhealthy pollution associated with burning coal. Every GWh of electricity generated by burning coal produces about 4 grams of cadmium air emissions. 20 Even though North Carolina produces a significant fraction of our electricity from coal, electricity from solar offsets much more natural gas than coal due to natural gas plants being able to adjust their rate of production more easily and quickly. If solar electricity offsets 90% natural gas and 10% coal, each 5-megawatt (5 MWAC, which is generally 7 MWDC) CdTe solar facility in North Carolina keeps about 157 grams, or about a third of a pound, of cadmium out of our environment. 21 , 22

Cadmium is toxic, but all the approximately 7 grams of cadmium in one CdTe panel is in the form of a chemical compound cadmium telluride, 23 which has 1/100th the toxicity of free cadmium. 24 Cadmium telluride is a very stable compound that is non-volatile and non-soluble in water. Even in the case of a fire, research shows that less than 0.1% of the cadmium is released when a CdTe panel is exposed to fire. The fire melts the glass and encapsulates over 99.9% of the cadmium in the molten glass. 25

It is important to understand the source of the cadmium used to manufacture CdTe PV panels. The cadmium is a byproduct of zinc and lead refining. The element is collected from emissions and waste streams during the production of these metals and combined with tellurium to create the CdTe used in PV panels. If the cadmium were not collected for use in the PV panels or other products, it would otherwise either be stockpiled for future use, cemented and buried, or disposed of. 26 Nearly all the cadmium in old or broken panels can be recycled which can eventually serve as the primary source of cadmium for new PV panels. 27

Similar to silicon-based PV panels, CdTe panels are constructed of a tempered glass front, one instead of two clear plastic encapsulation layers, and a rear heat strengthened glass backing (together >98% by weight). The final product is built to withstand exposure to the elements without significant damage for over 25 years. While not representative of damage that may occur in the field or even at a landfill, laboratory evidence has illustrated that when panels are ground into a fine powder, very acidic water is able to leach portions of the cadmium and tellurium, 28 similar to the process used to recycle CdTe panels. Like many silicon-based panels, CdTe panels are reported (as far back ask 1998 29) to pass the EPA’s Toxic Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) test, which tests the potential for crushed panels in a landfill to leach hazardous substances into groundwater. 30 Passing this test means that they are classified as non-hazardous waste and can be deposited in landfills. 31 , 32 For more information about PV panel end-of-life, see the Panel Disposal section.

There is also concern of environmental impact resulting from potential catastrophic events involving CdTe PV panels. An analysis of worst-case scenarios for environmental impact from CdTe PV panels, including earthquakes, fires, and floods, was conducted by the University of Tokyo in 2013. After reviewing the extensive international body of research on CdTe PV technology, their report concluded, “Even in the worst-case scenarios, it is unlikely that the Cd concentrations in air and sea water will exceed the environmental regulation values.” 33 In a worst-case scenario of damaged panels abandoned on the ground, insignificant amounts of cadmium will leach from the panels. This is because this scenario is much less conducive (larger module pieces, less acidity) to leaching than the conditions of the EPA’s TCLP test used to simulate landfill conditions, which CdTe panels pass. 34

First Solar, a U.S. company, and the only significant supplier of CdTe panels, has a robust panel take-back and recycling program that has been operating commercially since 2005. 35 The company states that it is “committed to providing a commercially attractive recycling solution for photovoltaic (PV) power plant and module owners to help them meet their module (end of life) EOL obligation simply, cost-effectively and responsibly.” First Solar global recycling services to their customers to collect and recycle panels once they reach the end of productive life whether due to age or damage. These recycling service agreements are structured to be financially attractive to both First Solar and the solar panel owner. For First Solar, the contract provides the company with an affordable source of raw materials needed for new panels and presumably a diminished risk of undesired release of Cd. The contract also benefits the solar panel owner by allowing them to avoid tipping fees at a waste disposal site. The legal contract helps provide peace of mind by ensuring compliance by both parties when considering the continuing trend of rising disposal costs and increasing regulatory requirements.

1.2.2 Photovoltaic (PV) Technologies

Crystalline Silicon

This subsection explores the toxicity of silicon-based PV panels and concludes that they do not pose a material risk of toxicity to public health and safety. Modern crystalline silicon PV panels, which account for over 90% of solar PV panels installed today, are, more or less, a commodity product. The overwhelming majority of panels installed in North Carolina are crystalline silicon panels that are informally classified as Tier I panels. Tier I panels are from well-respected manufacturers that have a good chance of being able to honor warranty claims. Tier I panels are understood to be of high quality, with predictable performance, durability, and content. Well over 80% (by weight) of the content of a PV panel is the tempered glass front and the aluminum frame, both of which are common building materials. Most of the remaining portion are common plastics, including polyethylene terephthalate in the backsheet, EVA encapsulation of the PV cells, polyphenyl ether in the junction box, and polyethylene insulation on the wire leads. The active, working components of the system are the silicon photovoltaic cells, the small electrical leads connecting them together, and to the wires coming out of the back of the panel. The electricity generating and conducting components makeup less than 5% of the weight of most panels. The PV cell itself is nearly 100% silicon, and silicon is the second most common element in the Earth's crust. The silicon for PV cells is obtained by high-temperature processing of quartz sand (SiO2) that removes its oxygen molecules. The refined silicon is converted to a PV cell by adding extremely small amounts of boron and phosphorus, both of which are common and of very low toxicity.

The other minor components of the PV cell are also generally benign; however, some contain lead, which is a human toxicant that is particularly harmful to young children. The minor components include an extremely thin antireflective coating (silicon nitride or titanium dioxide), a thin layer of aluminum on the rear, and thin strips of silver alloy that are screen-printed on the front and rear of cell. 7 In order for the front and rear electrodes to make effective electrical contact with the proper layer of the PV cell, other materials (called glass frit) are mixed with the silver alloy and then heated to etch the metals into the cell. This glass frit historically contains a small amount of lead (Pb) in the form of lead oxide. The 60 or 72 PV cells in a PV panel are connected by soldering thin solder-covered copper tabs from the back of one cell to the front of the next cell. Traditionally a tin-based solder containing some lead (Pb) is used, but some manufacturers have switched to lead-free solder. The glass frit and/or the solder may contain trace amounts of other metals, potentially including some with human toxicity such as cadmium. However, testing to simulate the potential for leaching from broken panels, which is discussed in more detail below, did not find a potential toxicity threat from these trace elements. Therefore, the tiny amount of lead in the grass frit and the solder is the only part of silicon PV panels with a potential to create a negative health impact. However, as described below, the very limited amount of lead involved and its strong physical and chemical attachment to other components of the PV panel means that even in worst-case scenarios the health hazard it poses is insignificant.

As with many electronic industries, the solder in silicon PV panels has historically been a lead-based solder, often 36% lead, due to the superior properties of such solder. However, recent advances in lead-free solders have spurred a trend among PV panel manufacturers to reduce or remove the lead in their panels. According to the 2015 Solar Scorecard from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a group that tracks environmental responsibility of photovoltaic panel manufacturers, fourteen companies (increased from twelve companies in 2014) manufacture PV panels certified to meet the European Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) standard. This means that the amount of cadmium and lead in the panels they manufacture fall below the RoHS thresholds, which are set by the European Union and serve as the world’s de facto standard for hazardous substances in manufactured goods. 8 The Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) standard requires that the maximum concentration found in any homogenous material in a produce is less than 0.01% cadmium and less than 0.10% lead, therefore, any solder can be no more than 0.10% lead. 9

While some manufacturers are producing PV panels that meet the RoHS standard, there is no requirement that they do so because the RoHS Directive explicitly states that the directive does not apply to photovoltaic panels. 10 The justification for this is provided in item 17 of the current RoHS Directive: “The development of renewable forms of energy is one of the Union’s key objectives, and the contribution made by renewable energy sources to environmental and climate objectives is crucial. Directive 2009/28/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 April 2009 on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources (4) recalls that there should be coherence between those objectives and other Union environmental legislation. Consequently, this Directive should not prevent the development of renewable energy technologies that have no negative impact on health and the environment and that are sustainable and economically viable.”

The use of lead is common in our modern economy. However, only about 0.5% of the annual lead consumption in the U.S. is for electronic solder for all uses; PV solder makes up only a tiny portion of this 0.5%. Close to 90% of lead consumption in the US is in batteries, which do not encapsulate the pounds of lead contained in each typical automotive battery. This puts the lead in batteries at great risk of leaching into the environment. Estimates for the lead in a single PV panel with lead-based solder range from 1.6 to 24 grams of lead, with 13g (less than half of an ounce) per panel seen most often in the literature. 11 At 13 g/panel 12, each panel contains one-half of the lead in a typical 12-gauge shotgun shell. This amount equates to roughly 1/750th of the lead in a single car battery. In a panel, it is all durably encapsulated from air or water for the full life of the panel. 13

As indicated by their 20 to 30-year power warranty, PV modules are designed for a long service life, generally over 25 years. For a panel to comply with its 25-year power warranty, its internal components, including lead, must be sealed from any moisture. Otherwise, they would corrode and the panel’s output would fall below power warranty levels. Thus, the lead in operating PV modules is not at risk of release to the environment during their service lifetime. In extreme experiments, researchers have shown that lead can leach from crushed or pulverized panels. 14 , 15 However, more real-world tests designed to represent typical trash compaction that are used to classify waste as hazardous or non-hazardous show no danger from leaching. 16 , 17 For more information about PV panel end-of-life, see the Panel Disposal section.

As illustrated throughout this section, silicon-based PV panels do not pose a material threat to public health and safety. The only aspect of the panels with potential toxicity concerns is the very small amount of lead in some panels. However, any lead in a panel is well sealed from environmental exposure for the operating lifetime of the solar panel and thus not at risk of release into the environment.