Are Solar Panels Hazardous And Toxic?
In one of the pervious episodes we discussed solar panels and recently a listener reached out and asked a question. But before we get into that we celebrate 50 years of the clean water act being passed!
Now, the question asked was are Solar Panels Hazardous and Toxic? Answer… It depends. Take a listen because we break down what the solar panels are made of, can someone break them down themselves, what do they do with the panels once they have expired and more. WE think you’ll be surprised with the answers! Take a listen and let us know what you think.
Episode 41 -Transcript
MARISA: Hello, everybody. This is Environmentally Speaking. I am Marisa Desautel an environmental attorney here in Rhode Island.
CLARICE: Hey, everybody. I am back. I am Clarice. I’m coming in with questions, topics, and comments. And after two weeks off, I don’t know, I’m feeling a little rusty.
MARISA: I was going to say you’re looking a little rusty.
CLARICE: Oh, good. Thank you.
MARISA: And also I’m being trite with you because I am fairly unhappy with something that you did not do.
MARISA: There was a recent episode where all I did was sniff because of my allergies and it was the most annoying thing I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s incumbent upon you to tell me if I’m being annoying. It’s never been a problem before.
CLARICE: I’m just thinking of the listener. Is the listener going to want to hear me call you out.
CLARICE: Okay. Listeners, let me know. Do you want me to call her out? I mean, you called me out for recycling. Get it together.
MARISA: I call you out for everything.
CLARICE: Grab your tissues. Put yourself on mute.
MARISA: I’ve got a fancy new headset here so I can mute myself because the snipping was like trying to go to dinner with a baby crying next to you. I will do my best to not sniff throughout this episode and I apologize for that performance. I know we’ve got a pretty racy topic to talk about today and, in fact, it came from a listener, right?
CLARICE: It did, yeah.
CLARICE: Somebody wrote in as a follow up to our recent solar energy episode and they asked, isn’t recycling solar – or can you recycle solar panels. Aren’t they considered hazardous or toxic waste. And I thought that was a really interesting question and did a little bit of a deep dive into what are solar panels made of. Are there regulations. Can you recycle them. How do you recycle them. It was a busy morning.
MARISA: I’m not surprised that this question came in. It’s something that I’ve heard many, many times before regulatory agencies and municipal boards and councils. It’s a fair question. And before we get into it, though, I just wanted to point out that we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act this year. Last episode we had Alisa Richardson come in. She’s a stormwater engineer. And I just wanted to say congratulations to the United States for doing its best to provide clean and safe drinking water and waters to navigate in in terms of kayaking and swimming.
So just kind of for me I like to geek out about this type of stuff. The Clean Water Act has been in place for 50 years which is not a lot of time when you think about how long humans have been civilized, so to speak. There were efforts before the Clean Water Act to improve water quality in the United States, but it wasn’t until 1972 that what we now know as the federal Clean Water Act came into effect. So just wanted to share that little tidbit of information.
[0:03:15] CLARICE: Yeah. Happy 50th.
MARISA: Happy 50th.
CLARICE: And if you ever pass by somebody who is significantly older than 50, stare at them in awe. They lived in a time when water was dirty all the time. They made it.
MARISA: You guys made it.
CLARICE: Back when seatbelts were just a twinkle in someone’s eye.
MARISA: And you could smoke on an airplane.
CLARICE: All the time.
MARISA: All right. Let’s get into this solar panel.
CLARICE: Yes. Let’s talk about solar panels. So the big question is are they hazardous to recycle. Are they toxic. And of course, Marisa, what is our favorite legal answer?
MARISA: It depends.
CLARICE: Yeah. It depends. There is no hard and fast rule on are all panels hazardous or toxic or only some. It depends on who’s manufacturing the panels. But let’s take a step back a little bit. Solar panels started gaining popularity in use in around the early 2000s. And your average solar panel has about 25 years of good use and that’s saying that everything’s running. Things are working great. There’s no storms. There’s no damage just from the nature of being outside, you know, all the time. So now that most of our panels are coming up close to that 25-year life span, we’re looking at internationally a projected 78 million metric tons of solar panels that are going to be retired.
MARISA: Not recycled.
CLARICE: So far retired is the full –
CLARICE: That’s the full panel. That’s all the fixings, all of the stands that they’re mounted on. That’s the whole setup. Out of that they’re projecting that to equal six million tons of solar e-waste.
MARISA: Where is that going to go?
CLARICE: We don’t know. Here’s the bad news. One million tons of that are projected to be U.S. alone. As of right now the U.S. is the number two producer and user of solar panels.
MARISA: Who’s number one?
CLARICE: It didn’t say.
MARISA: It’s got to be a European country. They’re ahead of us a little bit.
CLARICE: I think the way that the article was written – and I’ll make sure to put all of the articles I referenced. I read from The Wire, EPA, Forbes, a couple other places, so we’ll have those in the show notes if anybody wants to read them, as well. The way this article was written it talked about the U.S. in comparison to Europe as a whole, so I’m not sure if they’re separating it just by U.S. versus all of Europe when they say number one and number two.
[0:06:04] MARISA: Okay.
CLARICE: But that’s a lot of waste coming in. That’s a lot of waste coming in.
MARISA: Well, you know, I’m not surprised. The same issue and discussion comes up when you’re looking at and talking about offshore wind. As you know, Clarice, our office does quite a bit of work with offshore wind, advocating for those projects to move forward in an environmentally reasonable sensitive and responsible way. Unfortunately, those projects, in my opinion, are not moving forward in a responsible way. They’re moving forward very quickly without adequate study of the habitat that exists at the bottom of the ocean and impacts to that habitat. Part of those considerations includes what happens to the turbines and the infrastructure at the end of their useful life.
Off the top of my head, I’m not sure how long turbines are meant to operate for, but let’s say it’s 25 years just to compare it to a solar farm. The issue is do the turbines and infrastructure and mounting pads remain in place, or is there an opportunity for these developers to recycle and upgrade and maintain the infrastructure into the future, or will there be a new renewable energy source in 25 years so that wind turbines are obsolete?
These are questions that have no answer as far as I’m concerned. I’ve not heard a dialogue about it. All I know is that the projects are moving forward because we are at a crucial point in human history in terms of fossil fuels and needing to find a renewable energy source. I’ll try not to get on my soapbox today about why that policy is so wrong, but I’ll just leave it with this thought. Of course there’s no plan for these solar panels and wind turbines after their useful life because we waited too long to figure out a renewable energy policy and are now faced with having to get these projects online very quickly.
CLARICE: Well, there’s no across the board plan, but I did research. There are some plans, so there’s a small glimmer of hope here. So when a solar panel has decommissioned, is at the end of its life, there are ways to recycle them. And what I thought was The Wire described a solar panel as a big technology sandwich which I really enjoyed. It was basic metals on the outside, your glass, and then in the inside was all of the cellular technology, the silver, and some potentially hazardous metals. Things like led could be in there. Let me look back at my notes. Cadmium.
[0:09:35] MARISA: I was just going to say cadmium..
CLARICE: Am I saying that right?
MARISA: God, I’m a genius.
CLARICE: You are. I look at it and I want to call it calcium.
MARISA: No. Not calcium.
CLARICE: Thank God you’re here.
CLARICE: So there’s led and cadmium in most solar panels, not all. Those are the problematic parts. So what recyclers can do is they can pull out the steel from the outside. They can pull out some of the glass. There’s copper. There’s aluminum. And they can recycle those. But it’s those inner workings that are problematic and have to go to a landfill.
MARISA: Well, wait a minute. Not to be aggressive, when you say that some of the materials can be recycled that doesn’t mean that they will be recycled.
MARISA: I mean, you know. You can’t even manage to recycle municipal waste, so how do you expect –
CLARICE: I am in remission.
MARISA: — a developer to agree 25 years from now to go in and remove certain components but not others and properly recycle. The cost associated with that and the time associated with that is not –
MARISA: — money friendly.
CLARICE: That’s the big problem, the cost associated.
CLARICE: It costs equal amount, if not more, to recycle these panels than the materials you’re recovering.
CLARICE: So from what I’ve read, on average you’ll get about $3 in recovered material off of a panel, but the process takes about 12 to $15 to do, so there’s no incentive.
MARISA: It’s not going to happen.
CLARICE: It’s not happening. You’re right. So some things that are being done specifically in the EU, these are on smaller scales, trial periods trying to figure out answers, not a mass common thing. Some people are trying to reuse small component and take a large solar panel, shrink them down a make a smaller panel, so a solar powered bike, something to power a streetlight, something to go on someone’s shed for lighting versus the barn. Shrinking down those, pulling out what things are not yet – what components are not yet at the end of their life and just trying to reuse them in some fashion. In the EU they’re also developing panels where that casing, that outer sandwich portion, remains the same, but you can open it up and switch out the components inside. So you’re reusing that, but then you still have the issue of, I’ve got this old dead middle. What do I do with that. So that’s another thing that’s going on.
There are people right now who are working on trying to figure out technology to efficiently pull out the silver and silicon that’s inside because those – if you can extract them and purify them they’re more valuable, so it will make the reward for recycling a little better. Now, like I said at the top, these are bespoke processes. These are small scale. These are basically people just trying to figure out what we can do instead of what we have right now. It could become a thing. We don’t know. It’s still like panels themselves, kind of in their infancy.
[0:13:06] MARISA: And there is a little bit of a fail-safe here. When these projects are being permitted at the municipal level, the municipality has the jurisdiction to require something called a decommissioning bond and that basically means that the developer buys a bond today which remains in place for the life of the project that the town can call in. If, let’s say, the developer goes bankrupt or who knows what happens in the future, the town can call in that bond to remove and decommission the solar panels itself if it needs to. So there’s a little bit of an insurance policy there, but that doesn’t cover the recycling issues that you’ve been talking about.
CLARICE: Some states have even gone as far as making recycling – they’ve actually put in regulations that manufacturers are required to recycle these panels at the end of their life so they’ll go back to the installation site. None of those states are in New England.
CLARICE: And it’s only a small handful. It’s California, Hawaii, Jersey, North Carolina, and Washington so five out of 50.
CLARICE: Isn’t that great.
MARISA: So I think we’d want to advocate for that in Rhode Island and across the country. It will raise the cost and the price of these components, but the alternative is landfill waste, toxic waste, landfill waste. And we already know the landfill in Rhode Island is, I think, at 80 percent capacity. I’m not sure. I pulled that percentage out of the air, but I know it’s – you know, it’s not –
CLARICE: It’s high.
MARISA: — it’s not a few facility, so it’s a major concern.
CLARICE: Yeah. So, I mean, in the end are solar panels hazardous and toxic. It depends.
MARISA: It depends.
CLARICE: Some are. Some aren’t. Some parts of the sandwich you can reuse. Some parts you just can’t. But ultimately it is – we’re coming up on a big problem. You know, 2025 is three years away and that’s just a general time frame of when most of these panels aren’t going to be used. That’s not counting all of the ones that have already been decommissioned, have already received damage. We didn’t even touch on those panels that are damaged due to storms and weather activity. If you have, say, a tornado that comes through and destroys a solar farm, you can’t recycle those because now all of those pieces are literally mixed in with natural debris. You can’t sweep it up and put rocks into the recycler.
CLARICE: I can’t even put plastic bags in recycling. They’re not going to take rocks. They’re just not. Dear listener.
MARISA: Well, I feel a little better about you as a human because of clearly the amount of research that you did on this topic.
CLARICE: I have to redeem myself.
CLARICE: Yeah. I’m just going to start wearing recycling merch and things like that just to promote the fact that I’ve changed.
CLARICE: But this was – thank you. Thank you to our listener who wrote in asking this question. There’s some glimmer of hope out in the EU. People are being really creative. Whether or not we can take those creative plans and scale them for the mass six million tons of solar panels that are coming in, I don’t know. Now I know a little bit more before we fill our fields.
MARISA: Great. And I think you wanted to make a little bit of an announcement about the next episode, right?
CLARICE: I do. I do. Next week we are going to be talking to Bob Rulli. He is a town planner. So we’re excited to have him.
MARISA: The town of Warren.
MARISA: He works in the town of Warren which is a lovely community and is facing major issues associated with sea level rise, so he’s kind of the guy on the cutting edge right now that knows what the new policies are and what the new landscape is going to look like. So I’m looking forward to talking to him next time.
CLARICE: Yeah. I’m happy that you reminded me of that. I was going to say I’m looking forward to a slightly happier episode. But that’s right.
CLARICE: The town of Warren is –
MARISA: Under water.
CLARICE: The sea level is rising. Yeah.
MARISA: Yeah. This podcast is not about happiness. This is about real factual information that is relevant to the environmental –
MARISA: — field and the conditions of our planet and it’s pretty negative.
CLARICE: It’s not going so hot.
CLARICE: But on that note, if you have any questions that you’d want to send to Bob to talk more about the sea level rising, general what’s it like to be a town planner, my town sent me this letter can you read it to me stuff, you can reach us at Help@DesautelESQ.com. We are on all the socials at Desautel Law. You can e-mail us like our lovely listeners do with their questions and comments and we will see you guys next week. Thank you.
MARISA: Thanks, Clarice.
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