Since 2015, solar panel installation in Minnesota has grown rapidly and is expected to continue its dramatic increase.  There is a statewide goal of 10% solar-generated electricity by 2030, which will result in approximately 6,000 Megawatts (MW) or about 21 million modules installed. While solar panels are meant to last for decades, solar installers, operators, local government and local media are already asking how to recycle non-working panels and anticipating recycling issues when current solar gardens are decommissioned in the future. In addition, damage from severe weather events, such as hail or tornadoes, can occasionally require the mass replacement of even recently installed solar panels. This is a case where Minnesota can anticipate with great certainty a future waste stream that will need special management. It is important to begin planning for this now.

To prepare Minnesota for the stream of 21 million solar panels in the coming years, the MPCA has started a stakeholder process organized with the Minnesota Department of Commerce and Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association. The goal of the stakeholder process is to collaborate to develop and implement PV panel end of life management policy and programs that conserve resources, protect health, promote renewable energy, and support PV panel recycling infrastructure and technology. 

Since June of 2019 multiple WebEx meetings have been held. The first included presentations from MPCA on a white paper that is open for public review and comment, and survey of an initial set of representatives from the industry. That was followed in October by presentations from the Solar Energy Industries Association, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. December’s WebEx focused on recycling and manufacturing with presentations from NREL, Professor Phadke from Macalester discussing urban mining, the recycler Cascade Eco Minerals and two manufacturers representing thin film and silicon panels, First Solar and Minnesota’s own Heliene. 2020 has included presentations on Product Stewardship from PaintCare, Call2Recycle and the Product Care Association, along with Green Electronics Council on the EPEAT standards for electronics that now include solar panels. The most recent meeting had presentations from the MN Department of Commerce on Decommissioning for Large Wind and Solar Facilities and Solar in Minnesota. The meeting concluded with a review and discussion on a survey to the stakeholders that gathered opinions on four potential models on managing solar panels.

These presentations have started to show how many panels are being installed with projections of de-installations into the future, what the panels are made of and what they are worth in today’s markets, which electronics recyclers in the US are accepting this material and what it costs and, what is happening with PV panel policy in the US and Europe. More accurate data is still needed on what is coming out of the waste stream, whether panels are testing as hazardous or not, and how to prepare for and fund a system for solar panel decommissioning at the end-of-life.  Future meetings will continue to discuss the potential models on managing solar panel recycling.

MnSEIA has participated in these stakeholder meetings and will continue our involvement to ensure the Minnesota solar industry has a responsible end-of-life plan to encourage further growth of solar in the state.