Within 25 years New York will find itself trying to manage the disposal of five million or more waste solar panels every year. That’s nearly 100,000 per week forever.
New York currently has no plan for dealing with this massive amount of “green” waste, but the cost for proper disposal could top $135 million per year.
New York’s Climate Action Council estimates the state will have 6 gigawatts—or 60 billion watts—of solar power by 2050. Most solar panels generate between 250 and 400 watts. Assuming solar developers install only the most efficient solar panels (400 watts) and that those panels do not degrade in efficiency over time, this will require the deployment of at least 150 million solar panels.
The expected life span of a solar panel is 20 to 30 years. If they all last the full 30 years, that means 1/30th—five million—of them must be replaced every year. That’s enough solar panels to cover over 1,500 football fields. At an average weight of around 40 pounds each, it’s roughly 100,000 tons of solar panel waste per year.
This is a conservative estimate. If the average output of solar panels is actually only 300 watts—due to some panels being not state of the art and others degrading in efficiency over time—it would take 200 million solar panels to provide the power the Climate Action Council wants. And if they were replaced on average after 25 years, the annual waste stream would rise to 8 million panels, over 150,000 per week.
Currently there are three ways to dispose of waste solar panels. One is export them to developing countries, where they may, for a while, continue to produce power. Although this may at first sound like a win-win situation, the long-term effect is to leave poor countries to grapple with the challenge of dealing with the numerous toxic metals in solar panels. Some of those countries are already suffering the negative environmental effects of America’s, and New York’s, “clean” energy policies.
The second option is to dispose of them in landfills. Because they contain toxic metals, they should be sent to hazardous waste landfills, where disposal costs are around $5 per panel. However, many are sent to municipal solid waste landfills, where disposal costs may be as little as $1 to $2 per panel.
Municipal solid waste landfills in New York are primarily operated at the county level. In response to queries, most counties that operate landfills responded that they had no records of any policies at all concerning the disposal of waste solar panels in their landfills. Among those that do have a policy, there is no consistency.
Both Jefferson and Saratoga counties accept solar panels for landfill disposal, noting that this follows current state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) guidance. In contrast, Columbia County used the absence of clear guidance from the DEC as grounds for directing people with solar panels away from their landfill and toward dedicated solar panel disposal organizations.
Chenango County has no formal policy but said they would have to evaluate solar panels on a case-by-case basis. Monroe County prohibits their disposal by classifying them as electronic waste. And Schoharie County has only a waste transfer station but has gone beyond most other counties in having already classified used solar panels as hazardous waste, which it does not accept at the transfer facility.
In response to the current state of affairs, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has expressed its concern that that “[m]ost of this waste currently goes to landfills despite heavy metals present in cells that could classify them as hazardous waste (e.g., arsenic, cadmium, lead, silver).”
But in addition to the higher cost of disposal at hazardous waste landfills, there are significantly fewer of them, so they could quickly be overwhelmed by the rapidly growing number of waste solar panels.
The final option for disposal is recycling. To date, Niagara County is the only county in New York that prevents landfilling by requiring a county approved recycling plan prior to the installation of solar panels.
But recycling is also the most expensive option. It costs $20 to $30 per panel and recovers materials worth only $3 to $12, leaving a net cost $8 to $27—up to 13 times the cost of landfilling. Multiplied by 5 million panels, and that’s as much as $135 million per year for disposal.
Despite this cost, recycling is likely to become statewide policy. As well as avoiding the problems of landfilling solar panels in either municipal or hazardous waste landfills, it lines up with the state’s general policy of trying to reduce solid waste and redirect it away from landfills.
But much of the non-recoverable materials in solar panels is often incinerated after recycling, and that runs against the general trend of New York waste policy.
A bill to prohibit the landfilling or incineration of solar panels and require manufacturers to fund their recycling was introduced in the 2021-2022 session of the New York state legislature. That the bill did not make it out of committee suggests that the Legislature is not yet ready to deal with the looming consequences of its prior policies.
This may be because they prefer to take the path of least resistance, which is to let the DEC resolve the problem the legislature created. The DEC is currently working on a draft Solid Waste Management Plan that would add solar panels to its Universal Waste Regulations.
The specific policy would probably resemble an extended producer responsibility model, similar to the approach adopted by Niagara County. This would require solar developers to incorporate the cost of recycling waste solar panels into their upfront planning for developing solar fields. They would probably be required to put money into a fund—either individually or collectively as an industry—that would pay the recycling cost.
While an extended producer responsibility model would resolve the challenge of what to do with the many millions of waste solar panels, the cost of doing so must be reckoned into the overall costs of the state’s climate policy.
It has become popular to boast that solar power has become the cheapest form of electricity production. But just as this boast does not account for the cost of backup power to compensate for solar power’s unreliability, it also does not account for the problem of managing the massive amount of solid waste created by increasing dependence on solar power. According to an estimate published in the Harvard Business Review, the problem of waste management could by itself drive the real cost of solar power to four times the current projected cost, which “could crush industry competitiveness.”
As these costs will ultimately be paid by the state’s electricity ratepayers, it is time for state policymakers to develop a thorough and open accounting of the actual cost of solar power and a plan to handle the resultant waste. Only then can New Yorkers make a fully informed choice about how much solar power they are willing to pay for.