In December of 2016, a flatbed truck carrying 450 solar panels — enough to cover the roofs of an entire city block — pulled into the waste-transfer station in Berkeley, California. New, each panel would sell for hundreds of dollars. Used, well … you’d have to pay to get rid of them. Though they’re green superstars, displacing fossil fuels while in use, most used solar panels (even those with decent remaining functionality) are fated for a not-so-eco-friendly afterlife: an eternity in the dump.
Discarded photovoltaic panels pose a quandary for waste managers because they contain both low levels of toxic heavy metals, and valuable elements like silver and tellurium, so they probably shouldn’t just go into a landfill with ordinary refuse like diapers and styrofoam. And as residential panels surge in popularity, more cities are having to figure out what to do with solar trash.
“Local governments are freaked out. They are starting to get solar panels and they don’t know what to do with them,” said Dustin Mulvaney, an environmental studies professor at San Jose State who is working on answers to that question.
But in on that December day in Berkeley, the solar panels didn’t go to a landfill, or a hazardous waste facility, or even some photovoltaic recycling factory. Instead, a crew from the local salvage company Urban Ore intercepted them, hauling the load back to their property across town.
Urban Ore is not your typical secondhand store. While it does have your standard used couches, old cookware, and vintage apparel sections, customers can also choose from a wide selection of, well, homeowner junkyard items. In its cavernous warehouse, and in the surrounding field of blacktop, are rows of used toilets, now clean, of course, and arranged like porcelain soldiers in the back; buyers can nab clawfoot bathtubs, old front doors and windows, even oversized theater scenery.
Urban Ore’s best trashy treasures are often intercepted on their way to the landfill. Every day, the store sends three staff members to prowl the waste-transfer station looking for good finds. Armed with a box truck, and a forklift, they wait to pounce on whatever unwanted items they might sell. The crew grabs bikes, cabinets, sinks, and furniture. But until that fateful winter’s day, they’d never grabbed solar panels before — and they were a little nervous. If none of their customers ended up buying them, the store might have to fork over the fees to dispose of them as hazardous waste.
“It was a bit of a gamble, but we decided we wanted them,” said Max Wechsler, the Urban Ore operations manager.
Wechsler ran tests on the panels and they seemed to be working fine. He priced them at 60 cents per watt of electricity-producing capacity, and then watched as they sold. Some people would just buy one or two, enough to charge a battery for their RV, or provide electricity for their Burning Man campsite. Others bought 30 at a time, enough to cover their roof.
“We sold out and never had a single return,” Wechsler said.
Solar’s great big garbage problem
From an electricity standpoint, solar panels are a key part of many proposed climate solutions. From a waste disposal standpoint, Mulvaney says they’re a tsunami about to crash into cities worldwide.
Part of the problem is that every panel will die, sooner or later. The rule of thumb is that the panels lose 1 percent of their efficiency every year. “As the modules age, impurities creep into the crystals and some of the electrons generated by sunlight want to go to those impurities rather than through the electrical circuit,” he explained.
At least in theory, one set of solar panels could last someone for the rest of their life, but many people choose to ditch their panels after only a decade or two. When a homeowner removes old solar panels to fix their roof, for example, some of them will trade up for a newer, more efficient model. Lee-Tan Lu, an environmental science master’s student working with Mulvaney, found that, if people get rid of their photovoltaic panels around the time of their warranted lifespan, it “will result in an enormous amount of waste released into the environment, about 90 thousand tons by 2050 in the San Francisco Bay Area alone.” By that same time period, the nation will have generated around 7.5 million tons of solar waste, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
But Wechsler, the Urban Ore operations manager, says we could put a big dent in those numbers if, instead of using panels for 30 years and then throwing them away, we reused them. Even losing 1 percent efficiency per year, he points out, it a panel would still operating at 86 percent after 30 years. “I’m 32, and I’d say I’m operating at about 86 percent efficiency,” he joked. “I’d like to think I’m still worth something.”
Sitting in a (used, of course) chair in his office at Urban Ore on a blazing summer day, Wechsler sipped water from a wide-mouthed mason jar. He was clad in the mufti of a new class of artisan appearing around the United States: leather boots, dark wash jeans, a gray button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled past his elbows, and a vigorous but well-groomed beard.
We walked across the Urban Ore lot, past rows and rows of doors, to a red shipping container. Inside was the latest delivery of panels — a 4-foot line of heavy aluminum-edged modules leaning against each other. These days, Urban Ore gets most of the panels from a single technician, who is happy to have found a place where he can unload them for free, Wechsler said. Wechsler had priced at 50 cents per Watt (40 cents per Watt for five or more), about half of what you’d pay at a hardware store for new panels.
He mentioned that it had been a while since anyone had bought panels from Urban Ore, but when we went to look at the modules in the shipping container, there was a piece of red tape marking ten of them. They’d just been sold.
Wechsler smiled. “These modules still have a lot of life in them,” he said. “We’re thinking this is going to be our next big thing. I just hope there’s enough demand to match all the supply that’s going to be coming in.”