Cleaning after Solar Panels: A Circular Outlook

Duran, Serasu; Atasu, Atalay; Van Wassenhove, Luk N.
SSRN Electronic Journal

The sharp reduction in costs of solar panel installations along with improvements in their energy conversion efficiency has driven a rapid growth in the adoption of this technology in the past decade. There is, however, a potential caveat to such rapid growth in adoption: existing installations may be retired earlier than their projected 30-year lifetime. We posit that the progress in technology, along with shrinking solar panel prices can drive users to replace their panels much sooner, leading to an unexpectedly large volume of solar panel waste soon. In the absence of financially viable recycling technologies and an efficient removal infrastructure for solar panels, it is not difficult to foresee substantial costs associated with the removal, transportation, storage, and treatment of such waste. It is also unclear who will bear the end-of-life costs of such solar waste. Along with shrinking useful lives, these end-of-life costs imply a significant jump in the levelized cost of solar energy, which can hinder its future adoption potential. We provide a calibrated projection of solar waste volumes and costs for the next couple of decades and draw parallels from our experience with the WEEE Directive to suggest policy recommendations.