By the end of 2020, the U.S. had 95 GWdc of total installed solar PV capacity after witnessing 19 GWdc of capacity additions in the year. The cumulative installed capacity in the country could reach 202 GWdc by 2025 at the current pace of installations. With the rapidly increasing solar PV capacity in the U.S. the volume of modules is also expanding significantly and so is the problem of their safe disposal. There has been a growing awareness regarding the recycling of PV modules either to extract their precious metals or to manufacture new modules once the old ones reach their end of life. These concerns have enabled government- and industry-led discussions, policies, and initiatives on recycling-based resource recovery of PV modules in the U.S.
The technical report titled “Solar Photovoltaic Module Recycling: A Survey of U.S. Policies and Initiatives” has been authored by Taylor L. Curtis, Heather Buchanan, Garvin Heath, and Ligia Smith from National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Stephanie Shaw from Electric Power Research Institute. It identifies drivers, barriers, and enablers to PV module recycling in the U.S. along with an in-depth analysis of U.S. federal and state policies. REGlobal presents an extract from the report.
Washington State’s PV Module Stewardship and Takeback Program
In 2017, the Washington State Legislature passed Senate Bill 5939 to promote a sustainable local renewable energy industry through modifying tax incentives. A portion of the bill created the Photovoltaic Module Stewardship and Takeback Program which requires PV module manufacturers to finance and implement a takeback and recycling or reuse stewardship plan for PV modules sold after July 1, 2022, at no cost to the owner. Beginning July 1, 2023, no manufacturer, distributor, retailer, or installer may sell or offer to sell PV modules within or into Washington unless the manufacturer has submitted and obtained approval for a stewardship plan from the Washington Department of Ecology (Department).
Manufacturers must complete and submit a stewardship plan to the Department, then implement the plan by July 1, 2022. Manufacturers can create and implement stewardship plans individually or join a registered stewardship organization and allow that organization to create and implement the plan on the manufacturer’s behalf. The stewardship plan must outline how the manufacturer will:
- Finance the takeback program
- Accept all PV modules they have sold within or into the state after July 1, 2017
- Minimize the release of hazardous substances and maximize the recovery of other components
- Provide convenient take back opportunities in regions of Washington where its modules are used
- Disseminate applicable information about its program to relevant stakeholders
- Implement performance goals to reuse and/or recycle at least 85% of the PV modules the manufacturer collects
After initial approval of the stewardship plans, the manufacturer must submit and publicly publish annual reports about the previous year’s implementation of the manufacturer’s plan, including achievement assessments of the plan’s performance goals and recommendations to the Department of Ecology or the Washington State Legislature on potential modifications to improve the effectiveness of the takeback program.
The Department of Ecology approves each manufacturer’s plan and reviews subsequent annual reports. In addition, the Department of Ecology may collect a flat fee from every participating manufacturer to cover the costs of administering the program and an annual fee from each manufacturer based on the manufacturer’s pro rata share of the preceding year’s PV module sales in Washington state. The Department of Ecology may, after warning noncompliant manufacturers of their need to comply, impose a penalty of up to $10,000 per sale of a PV module in Washington state. The Department of Ecology must deposit all fees and penalties into a PV module recycling account, which can only be used for funding the program’s administration costs.
Potential advantages associated with Washington’s Stewardship and Takeback Program:
- Requires environmentally sustainable EoL PV module management, which complements Washington’s goal of reaching 100% GHG-free electricity by 2045
- Incentivizes recycling over disposal by clarifying that PV modules destined for recycling, which follow the Department’s Interim Enforcement Policy, are not subject to stringent dangerous waste requirements, which still apply to PV modules destined for disposal
- Reduces the cost and uncertainty regarding permitting and liability associated with classifying PV modules as dangerous waste
- Requires recycling PV modules, which could lead to job creation and new and expanded market opportunities
- Provides a reuse option for compliance, which could lead to job creation and encourage secondary solar market opportunities
- Creates a revenue stream to fund the Department’s program costs
- Creates a free, accessible Takeback Program for consumers and requires dissemination of information and education about the takeback program.
Potential challenges associated with Washington’s Stewardship and Takeback Program:
- May disproportionately impact manufacturers, distributors, retailers, or installers, which could ultimately discourage the sale of PV modules in Washington because no other U.S. jurisdiction has a similar requirement
- Does not apply to PV modules sold in the state prior to 2017 or account for orphaned PV modules that were manufactured by companies no longer in business, which will exempt many EoL PV modules from the recycling requirements
North Carolina’s Commission to Study and Adopt Regulations to Govern the Management of PV Modules
On July 19, 2019, the North Carolina General Assembly passed House Bill 329 to study and consider the adoption of regulations to govern the management of EoL PV modules used in utility-scale projects. The Department of Environmental Quality established a stakeholder working group and submitted quarterly joint interim reports on their activities and progress to the General Assembly beginning December 2019 and submitted a final report January 1, 2021. The final report included the Department of Environmental Quality’s findings and recommendations, as well as a detailed summary of the research and data to support the findings. In the final report, the Environmental Management Commission:
- Estimated that North Carolina has more than 4,000 MW of installed solar capacity and that figure is expected to double in the next five years
- Estimated that 8.5 million PV modules will be decommissioned between 2036 and 2040
- Found that the recycling capacity for solar PV modules is still in development and noted that in the future, sufficient infrastructure to support transportation and recycling of EoL PV modules will need to be developed
- Established the following order of preference for management of retired and EoL PV modules: direct reuse, refurbishment/repair for reuse, recycling if reuse and repair for reuse are not feasible, and disposal
- Determined that EoL PV modules that no longer serve the purpose for which they are intended are solid waste
- Determined that PV modules that exhibit hazardous characteristics under the TCLP test must be managed as hazardous waste, but nonhazardous PV modules may be managed as solid waste
- Requested the development of a sample preparation procedure for TCLP testing of PV modules for representative and accurate waste characterization due to inconsistency and variability concerns associated with TCLP testing results
- Stated that the Department of Environmental Quality, in consultation with the EPA, anticipates a future rulemaking proceeding to define EoL PV modules as universal waste in 2021. The Commission noted that the purpose of PV universal waste regulations is to facilitate recycling, provide regulatory clarify, and eliminate the need to conduct TCLP testing on EoL PV modules
- Found that the establishment of a fee system paid for by manufacturers to support a stewardship program may create a disincentive for recycling, especially given the lack of accessible recycling facilities
- A network of collection and consolidation points for EoL utility-scale PV modules would not be needed; instead, utility-scale PV system owners are advised to anticipate and evaluate collection and transportation costs during the facility’s decommissioning planning (NCDEQ 2021).
Potential advantages associated with North Carolina’s Commission Study:
- Studied EoL PV management options, such as recycling, as well as associated barriers, to inform the development of new regulations
- Established an order of preference for the management of EoL PV modules, which emphasizes the benefits of recycling
- Estimated the volume of future deployment of PV modules and associated decommissioning levels to inform market conditions, private and public investment decision, and infrastructure needs necessary to support recycling
- Emphasized the need for future investment in infrastructure to support recycling of EoL PV modules
- Determined when decommissioned EoL PV modules constitute solid or hazardous waste, which may reduce regulatory uncertainty as well as liability concerns associated with management
- Development of a TCLP sampling procedure may create standardized results, which may increase the validity of test results
- Development of PV universal waste regulations may reduce some of the costs and liabilities associated with collecting, storing, and transporting decommissioned hazardous PV modules (as compared to fully-regulated hazardous waste) and may deter the abandonment of PV modules (Way 2019; NCDEQ 2021).
Potential challenges associated with North Carolina’s Commission Study:
- Does not mandate the adoption of rules and regulations, which makes it unclear whether the Commission’s final report will have any bearing on the development of EoL PV management options
- Does not recommend immediate investment in infrastructure to support cost effective and efficient recycling options for EoL PV modules
- Does not address modules from rooftop or residential PV systems
- Anticipates the development of universal waste regulations, which often treat recycling and disposal in the same manner and therefore may not provide an incentive for recycling EoL PV modules under current market conditions.
New Jersey’s Commission to Investigate Options for EoL PV Recycling
On August 9, 2019, the New Jersey state legislature passed Senate Bill 601, which created the New Jersey Solar Panel Recycling Commission. The Commission is tasked with investigating options for recycling and other EoL management methods for PV and other solar energy generation structures. The Commission is also tasked with developing recommendations for legislative, administrative, or private sector action. The Commission consists of nine voting members.
The Commission can use the services of any state, county, or municipal employee to investigate options for EoL PV recycling and management. The Commission must submit findings of its investigation and recommendations as a final report to the Governor and post it on the Department of Environmental Protection’s website no later than August 2021. The bill also authorizes the Department of Environmental Protection to adopt rules and regulations regarding EoL PV module recycling or management options based on the Commission’s final report.
Potential advantages associated with New Jersey’s Commission to investigate options for PV module recycling:
- Requires analysis of EoL PV module management options, such as recycling, as well as associated barriers, which may inform the development of new regulations
- May engender the development of infrastructure necessary to support recycling, leading to secondary market opportunities and job creation
- Addresses barriers to PV recycling, which reflect information gathered through coordination with a diverse group of stakeholders including state and local entities
- Grants authority to the Department of Environmental Protection to adopt rules and regulations based on the Commission’s findings.
Potential challenges associated with New Jersey’s Commission to investigate options for PV module recycling:
- Does not mandate that the Department of Environmental Protection adopt rules and regulations concerning recycling or other EoL PV module management options, which makes it unclear whether the Commission’s final report will have any bearing on the development of EoL PV management options
- Does not identify a funding source to satisfy the Act’s requirements
- Does not explicitly address whether EoL PV modules destined for recycling and resource recovery will be classified and regulated as solid waste, which may lead to uncertainty regarding the applicability of regulations as well as associated costs and potential liabilities
- No public information can be found on the study’s results or progress.
California’s Universal Waste Regulations
In September 2020, the DTSC enacted regulation R-2017-04, which allows for discarded PV modules that exhibit toxicity characteristic of hazardous waste to be managed as universal waste in California. California’s universal waste regulations include notification, reporting, transportation, storage, and handling requirements that are less stringent than California’s hazardous waste regulations. Specifically, DTSC regulations:
- Clarify that PV modules that are refurbished or reused are not waste and not subject to the universal waste regulations
- State that a party who is subject to an enforcement action who claims that a PV module is not waste bears the burden of demonstrating that there is a known market or disposition for its use as a PV module
- Clarify that a PV module becomes “waste” on the date it is discarded (PV modules that are abandoned, relinquished, or recycling are considered waste when they are disconnected or remove from service (DTSC n.d.)
- Establish universal waste requirements for universal waste handlers (e.g., asset owners, installers, manufacturers, distributors/warehouses, storage facilities, recyclers, treatment facilities) and universal transporters26 that generate, accumulate, treat, transport, or dispose of PV modules that exhibit toxicity characteristics of hazardous waste
- Specify the management standards for different levels of treatment to ensure treatment is performed safely by universal waste handlers that do not have a hazardous waste facility permit that they would otherwise be required to obtain.
Potential advantages associated with California’s regulations to include PV modules as a universal waste category:
- May reduce some of the costs and liabilities associated with collecting, storing, and transporting discarded hazardous PV modules (as compared to fully regulated hazardous waste)
- May deter the abandonment of PV modules, which are categorized as hazardous waste under California law and redirect them to other EoL management options, such as recycling
- Clarifies regulatory standard for EoL PV modules destined for recycling-based resource recovery
- Complements the state’s recently enacted goal of 100% clean energy by 2045
- Specifies management standards to safely handle and treat PV modules
Potential challenges associated with California’s regulations to include PV modules as a universal waste category:
- Does not allow for processing PV modules by heat or chemicals in California, which are processes commonly used for PV module recycling
- Does not necessarily eliminate the requirement to determine whether the PV module exhibits toxicity characteristics either by previous knowledge or by California’s toxicity testing protocol – the Waste Extraction Test (WET)
- May create a presumption that all decommissioned PV modules destined for recycling and resource recovery are not only solid waste, but hazardous waste
- Restricts transport unless transported to another universal handler, an authorized waste destination facility, or a foreign destination
- May create a presumption that PV facility owners and operators are generators of solid waste and potentially hazardous waste
- May create a presumption that PV facilities have the potential to be considered a hazardous waste facility
- Regulates PV modules destined for recycling in the same manner as those being disposed of
- May result in more disposal of PV modules until the accessibility and economics of recycling are more favorable.
The projected volume of decommissioned PV modules in the United States presents not only EoL management concerns, but also material recovery and secondary market opportunities. PV recycling and resource recovery efforts can reduce negative environmental impacts associated with the life cycle of a PV module, reduce resource constraints, and present opportunities for new and expanded markets and job creation in the United States. Policy measures and industry standards can enable actors along the PV value chain to take proactive and collaborative action to implement environmentally sustainable EoL PV management decisions.
Publicly available research and analysis regarding the value and volume of recovered materials from EoL PV modules as well as PV recycling infrastructure and technology needs could help inform policy to drive environmentally sustainable EoL management decisions and behaviors. Understanding the costs, liabilities, and current market conditions associated with PV recycling and resource recovery can also reduce investor risk and uncertainty directly, which may help to enable secondary solar markets in the United States. A multi-faceted regulatory approach that places the management and financial responsibility on multiple value chain actors may also help enable an EoL PV management strategy that does not overburden one actor. A regulatory framework that is complemented by industry standards, takes into consideration current law and, where possible, acts in concert with existing policy could also help enable an EoL PV management strategy and guide secondary solar market opportunity in the United States. Publicly available analyses of the advantages and challenges of early-stage policies, once they are implemented, can inform subsequent policy development. Clearly defined federal and state regulation can mandate and/or incentivize PV recycling and resource recovery, while changes to the current regulatory scheme for the management of solid waste could also reduce the barriers associated with the handling, transport, accumulation, storage, and treatment of PV modules destined for recycling and resource recovery.
The original report can be accessed here