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

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

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. The films that cover the panels may contain cadmium. 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 …….


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