AUSTIN (KXAN) – Solar panel usage is slowly on the rise around the world. As they become more common, there has been some concern about the waste they may create. KXAN viewers wanted to know what happens to panels when they ‘expire’, so we found out.

“If you go back about 10 years ago, you would be blown away about how little solar has actually been installed,” said Paul Watson, chief strategy officer for Native Solar. Watson said that around 5% of the grid is currently powered by solar. The Department of Energy plans to have that number reach 30% by 2035.

Solar panels, Watson said, have a 25-year warranty. This means that the few panels installed in the early 2000s are just now expiring or reaching a point where they are unable to produce power. Panels most commonly expire due to cracks and general wear and tear.

Solar panels are full of valuable materials. including: glass, copper and aluminum. (Courtesy: KXAN/Frank Martinez)

“Can you dispose of it improperly? Absolutely. These things like anything else can end up in landfills.”

Landfills or recycling? What’s the future of solar

The good news is that solar panels can be recycled and they are filled with things that are very valuable. “You’re going to have glass, you’re going to have the solar cells, you’re going to have some aluminum in here,” Watson said.

Recycling them can be a bit of a challenge for homeowners. First, you need to track down someone who recycles them. WeRecycle.com has resources for people trying to recycle their panels. Native Solar is also partnered with the Amicus Solar Co-Op, which has resources for recycling solar.

Austin Resource Recovery also accepts solar panels at their Recycle and Reuse Drop-Off Center.

Second, you need to get the panels to the people doing the recycling. Austin Resource Recovery does not accept solar panels as part of their bulk pick-up. They must drop them off.

“We do see them from time to time. From storm damage or things like that,” said Ken Snipes, Director of Austin Resource Recovery. They see less than 2,000lbs of solar panels a year.

When Austin Resource Recovery receives solar panels, they are shipped to a processor in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Here the various elements are separated, including the glass, aluminum and electronics.

Growing with the solar industry

Piles of electronics fill the warehouse of the Recycle and Reuse Drop-Off Center in Austin
Austin Resource Recovery accepts solar panels. They are brought here, to the electronics sorting site. (Courtesy: KXAN/Eric Henrikson)

Snipes said that as the industry grows, Austin Resource Recovery will expand their services. “If we start to see more of them, then we will divert resources or add resources as needed to be able to handle and successfully process those materials.”

Watson said it is advantageous to prevent them from ending up in landfills for a simple reason: they are very valuable. For instance, Watson said the glass is being looked at by the auto industry, a possible source for windshield glass.

Solar panels are full of aluminum and copper, both of which are valuable metals. Watson would like to see the panels ground down and turned into “solar sand.” This sand can be used in batteries to store power.

Watson doesn’t think Texas will be the leader in this new solar market. He thinks Europe, Australia, and some states like Colorado will be the leaders in this field. He said solar panels have taken off there.

“These do not belong in a landfill and more importantly, they have different chunks of value streams that can come out of them for disposal,” Watson said.