The world’s photovoltaic capacity is growing at a record pace—and so too is the burden of waste from solar panels that have reached the end of their working lives. (Chemical & Engineering News)
  • Over 800K tonnes of expired solar panels are anticipated to reach Canada’s landfills by 2050 unless something changes.
  • This company wants to change that.
  • Their pilot project to keep expired panels in use has recovered close to 700 panels and is currently testing and refurbishing them for future use.

The typical lifespan of most solar panels is 20 years.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, a devastating 800,000 tonnes of expired solar panels are anticipated to reach Canada’s landfills by 2050 unless something changes.

With a booming Alberta solar industry, thousands of solar panels are expected to reach their two-decade lifespan in the next few years. The Alberta Recycling Management Authority (ARMA) is striving to prevent an upcoming wave of expired solar panels out of landfills.

Their pilot project to keep expired panels in use has recovered close to 700 panels and is currently testing and refurbishing them for future use.

Brad Shutlz, ARMA’s CEO, is hoping to have a solution before the problem intensifies, “I think what we’re experiencing right now is a calm before the storm. So we’re going to start seeing these coming in by the hundreds of thousands.”

Alberta’s existing electronics recycling program does not include solar panels. ARMA has been working on a pilot project to change this for the past two years.

The initial aim of ARMA’s project was to better understand the volume of expired panels already out there and the challenges to recycling the various materials.

Shutlz explains, “Working with our processors, we have come up with a method of funding them to go to all these collection sites, bring it back to their facilities and recycle it and just understanding the challenges, and the cost.”

Recovered solar panels undergo testing to determine how much production might be left and identify any potential safety concerns with continuing towards refurbishing the panel.

Darren Dunfield, a research lead at NAIT’s Centre For Grid Innovation, hopes to eventually automate the panel evaluation process.

“We need processes that can rapidly test, discard and move to refurbishment,” Dunfield said. “So expanding the speed that we do the testing, expanding the refurbishment ability of how many more we can salvage. Ultimately for me it’s about removing them from the waste stream.”

Alberta doesn’t yet have a system to use refurbished solar panels to generate electricity for the province’s power grid. This is due to issues with certification and insurance.

However, ARMA considers refurbished solar panels a practical option for farmers trying to cut back on low-end energy use.

Dunfield is training others, such as the owner of Hi-Tech Recyclers, Mark Schell, to successfully evaluate the hundreds of already recovered solar panels.

ARMA’s pilot is expected to wrap up this month.

According to Miguel Racin, press secretary for Alberta’s minister of environment and protected areas, the province is actively exploring ways to continue this vital work.

Sofia Martimianakis
Sofia is a writer who has public sector and renewable energy industry experience. She holds an HBA from the University of Toronto and an MA in English Literature from the University of Waterloo.

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    1. I feel there is a big misconception that needs to be cleared up around the life span of solar panels. The typical solar panels have a warranty period of 20 to 35 years. This should not be considered (or confused with) their lifespan. I have personally tested solar panels well beyond 40 years in age and they are still generating Close over 95% of their original capacity. So warranty does not equal lifespan. In my experience panels that do not make it through their full warranty period . Are typically damaged from abuse miss handling during installation or mother nature has thrown some thing at them. Just my two cents

      1. This article is rather misleading, overly alarming and it is kind of doing a disservice to the industry. Solar panels don’t “expire”.
        Their output does degrade extremely slowly over time.
        Solar panels have performance warranties of 25 years and my 35-year experience with PV modules as an installer and solar educator is that warranty claims are quite rare.
        I have two solar panels that I bought 47 years ago. They still work and test out well.
        Of course reuse and recycling programs are worthwhile and it is a topic that needs to be addressed, but please do not perpetuate myths.

    2. Hi Lance,

      Thank you for your feedback!

      I agree with you that solar panels can continue working well past their warranties (and many homeowners take advantage of this) but panels are typically replaced far sooner in industry-scale projects.

      When efficiency is paramount, as is the case for most commercial projects, it can be worthwhile to replace panels with newer, more powerful models well before their warranty expires.

      So what happens to all the panels?

      My article was exploring a potential solution to this problem: thousands of still very much viable panels ending up in Canadian landfills.

      Thank you for joining the conversation!

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