Solar panels last only for 30 years


From How China’s giant solar farms are transforming world energy:

But should giant solar parks continue to be built, one oft-ignored complication will have to be dealt with in future decades: solar panel waste. The panels last just 30 years or so, after which they must be broken up. It is hard to recycle them because they contain harmful chemicals like sulphuric acid. China is expected to experience a sudden boom in solar panel waste from around 2040 onwards and there is currently no clear plan for what to do with all that material.

Not quite as problematic as nuclear waste, perhaps, but it is one more hurdle to overcome when ensuring that large-scale solar energy really is a ‘green’ technology.

We’re going to have to deal with that problem at some stage.

The linked to article The Dark Side of China’s Solar Boom has a lot more details and mentions:

Last month, Europe’s first PV panel recycling plant began operating in France, repurposing all of the materials from the panels to make new solar panels. In the past, the panels were recycled in glass recycling plants, and only the glass and aluminum components could be recovered.


The urgency of solar panel recycling hasn’t yet dawned on most manufacturers. In China, expenses related to the handling of solar panel waste disposal or recycling aren’t factored into production costs. That’s different from Europe, where a directive requiring producers to take responsibility for recycling the panels they sell has been in place since 2012.

(And the Panda Green Energy Group has been creating large Panda shaped solar panel farms in Datong and soon elsewhere. Pics included here, here, here and here; which is what led me to this story! Note there are many artist renderings of these, but the ones in the linked articles seem to be real pics.)


There are certainly questions to be answered, but this article itself raises one or two questions for me.

For a start, whatever else solar panels might contain, I’m pretty sure sulphuric acid isn’t one of them - it’s a liquid! (That caused me to read the rest of the article with a certain amount of scepticism.) Maybe it’s used in their manufacture or their recycling, but either way it isn’t a new problem - it’s been used in lead acid batteries since cars have had starter motors (instead of a crank handle on the front) and since the first valve radios came out.

The major components of solar panels are glass (already widely recycled), silicon (the 2nd most abundant element on the planet) and aluminium (easily recycled and well worth the effort). I’m not sure what else goes into solar panels to boost their efficiency, or whether it’s economically recoverable, but the Wikipedia article on Solar Panels paints quite a rosy picture.

That said, one reason I didn’t jump on the bandwagon when subsidies and feed-in tariffs were at their height is their unknown longevity (as well as the fact that our roof is pitched the wrong way, and at the time I wasn’t sure we’d be in this house for the payback time). The carbon footprint of solar cell manufacture (and recycling) is probably significant, and will be multiplied if they’re replaced earlier than originally envisaged (as happens with many things), either because of degradation or to be replaced by ones of higher efficiency.


Sulphuric Acid? That’s a liquid - I’m sure solar panels don’t contain that! Here’s a more positive article claiming that the panels are currently 96% recyclable, so in 20 years time the percentage will presumably be better than that. Surely a 30-year life span is pretty good for most products at the moment?


The BBC article got the sixthtone one wrong. And the sixthtone’s sentence is unclear, mixing manufacturing and recycling:

Mary Hutzler, senior fellow at the Institute for Energy Research in Washington D.C., said that solar panels are manufactured using hazardous materials — including sulfuric acid and phosphine gas — making them difficult to recycle. They also contain toxic metals like lead, chromium, and cadmium, which can be harmful to humans and are likely to leak from electronic waste dumps into drinking water supplies.

So one wrong article, and one partly unclear but with lots more details.


It seems the “institute for energy research” is a lobby group funded by Big Oil/Gas/Coal.

See Mother Jones: “Meet the 12 loudest members of the chorus claiming that global warming is a joke and that CO2 emissions are actually good for you.”

What a surprise.


From what I’ve read previously, nobody really knows how long solar panels will last. It seems the 30 year figure is just something that has been nominally suggested, since most large PV panels are less than 30 years old. However, some people have pointed out that many of the pilot scale panels erected immediately after the 1973 oil-crisis are still generating.

Apparently, most panel electrical failures are down to breaks in the (rather thin) cell-to-cell wiring - either due to thermal cycling (fatigue) or through corrosion from water ingress. Panels are also often replaced because of impact damage to the glass, which would let in the rain. However, the cells inside usually still work - once they have dried out.

I once looked into the possibility of buying some old broken panels to refurbish (and mount on my shed roof :slight_smile: ) But, interestingly, they are not as cheap and readily available as you might expect. Too many other people must have had the same idea :wink:

Despite what the Fossil Fuel Lobby claim, there certainly aren’t vast numbers of panels heading to landfill. It is true that many arrays have been taken off line and dismantled - but that seems to be down to poorly planned speculative installation in the first place. However, there is still a strong market for undamaged second-hand panels, so they certainly don’t get scrapped.

I do think there is some valid concern over the embodied energy in the most widely used silicon wafer cell technology, though. Recent price reductions have mainly been down to Chinese mass production - but the (fossil) energy used in cell manufacture hasn’t really been reduced over the same time. Research is continuing, of course, and lower embodied energy cell manufacturing techniques probably already exist. Unfortunately, low fossil fuel prices, and international patent wrangles, are likely to prevent their wide-scale manufacture for another 20 years…

I’d suggest reading the follwing articles from Low Tech Magagazine:


The source may be dubious, but it is worth understanding how/if hazardous materials are used in the manufacture of solar panels. Substances are often used in manufacture that are not found in products. Such as the use of benzene, or the cleaning compounds that Samsung used that caused leukemia in workers. (They just settled after a long battle.)

That said, the issue does seem quite politicised and finding good information is difficult. Perhaps @Jessika_Richter could help?


Yes, there’s quite a few different issues in the discussion. I have followed a bit of the solar PV debate (but was more up-to-date a couple of years ago). In the 2012 recast of the WEEE Directive, PV are now covered and producers are required to provide takeback systems in the EU. As PV is still not coming back in large numbers (due to long lifetimes), there is still uncertainty about how easy or hard it will be to recycle. The older PV has enough interesting and valuable materials that there are several processes already designed for recycling them (and First Solar has been taking back their panels before the WEEE Directive). On just a material basis, there are valuable materials that make it interesting to recycle (and like other electronics, may result in competition between reuse and recycling then), but as there aren’t large streams yet, it is still mostly pilot programmes looking at the recycling potentials.

In 2015, I talked to Dustin Mulvaney who worked for the Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition to make a scorecard on manufacturers looking at quite a few criteria for solar PV (considering end-of-life and toxicity issues, among others). Not surprisingly, it depends on what PV, what manufacturers and what contexts.

The same I would say for the LCAs and energy paybacks. Yes, certainly making PV in China and installing it in Norway is not going to be as good as the other way around, but you also have to make assumptions about what electricity is being replaced - and most often it is not the hydro base electricity, but rather a marginal fossil-fuel based source, so there may still be a benefit. Again, the point of all the sources cited is not that solar should not be deployed, but rather pointing out the environmental gains can be undermined - by how much is dependent on the assumptions made (both articles look at worst case scenarios in particular). Making sure there are gains also means decreasing the carbon payback time, which in turn can be achieved through increasing the GHG reduction at the usage stage or decreasing the GHG emissions at the manufacturing stages (and again, if climate policies or just economics are driving the deployment, this should be what happens as climate policies will push to offset fossil-fuel energy mixes and economic paybacks will follow efficient locations/systems). The other conclusion that can reached is that energy efficiency is still needed as well.