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Are Solar Panels a Sustainable Product?

solar panel lifespan and recycling

Installing a solar energy system on your home is a choice that can simultaneously reduce your carbon footprint and cut your electricity bill – the ultimate win-win in home energy. Your solar panels’ lifespan is long enough to produce decades of renewable energy for your home. Additionally, solar panel recycling options mean that once your system does finally reach the end of its life, you can be confident that your panels won’t end up in a landfill.

What is the Lifespan of Solar Panels?

The industry rule of thumb, based on advanced testing conducted by panel manufacturers, is that your solar panels have a useful lifespan of 25 to 30 years. However, “useful lifespan” doesn’t mean that they stop producing electricity after 25 years – it just means that their electricity production has declined by what manufacturers consider a significant amount.

A 2012 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that, on average, solar panel output falls by 0.8 percent each year. This means that in year two, your panels will operate at 99.2 percent of their original output; by the end of their 25-year “useful lifespan,” they will still be operating at 82.5 percent. In the years since this 2012 study has been conducted, more efficient technologies have been developed and many newer panels have just a 0.5 percent yearly decline in output.

In general, solar panels are extremely durable. Most manufacturers test their panels to confirm that they can withstand high winds and heavy snow loads, and many solar panels are specifically tested to ensure that they can withstand falling hail. Additionally, solar energy systems don’t usually have moving parts, and they require little to no maintenance

Solar panels also come with a few different warranties that can give you a sense of just how long you can expect your solar panel’s lifespan to be. Manufacturers will offer both an equipment warranty, to certify against manufacturing defects, and a performance warranty, to guarantee that your panels will produce a certain amount of electricity. Your solar panel’s performance warranty, which typically lasts 25 years, can give you a better sense of how much electricity to expect from your solar panel system over time.

You don’t need to worry about the carbon footprint of your solar panels, either. The 25 to 30 year lifespan of a solar panel is significantly longer than its “energy payback time,” or EPBT. EPBT is the amount of time it takes for a solar panel to produce enough clean electricity to “pay back” the energy that was used to manufacture it in the first place. A 2010 analysis from Brookhaven National Laboratory found that the EPBT of a solar panel is just six months – a number that has surely fallen in the past six years as panel manufacturing becomes more efficient.

Solar Panel Recycling Options and Programs

In the past 10 years, solar panels have gone from a fringe technology for the environmentally conscious to a viable home improvement option for nearly every household. While the industry is still relatively new, there are a number of panel manufacturers and other organizations that are already exploring solar panel recycling. The International Renewable Energy Agency predicts that, by 2050, old solar panels will be worth $15 billion in recyclable material – enough to produce two billion new solar panels. New recycling options are bound to grow as more and more solar panels reach the end of their lifespan.

Some panel manufacturers already offer recycling opportunities. First Solar, one of the largest manufacturers in the U.S., has a module recycling program that can recover 90 percent of panel materials for use in new products. SolarCity, the largest solar leasing company in the country, also recycles panels from its installations at the end of their useful lifespan.

Another organization that has recognized the importance of solar panel recycling is the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a national trade group for solar companies. SEIA is developing a national recycling program for all of its partners through its PV Recycling Working Group

If solar panel sustainability is a top priority for you, there are certain manufacturers that have certifications related to the sustainability of their solar panel life cycle. Most recently, panel manufacturer SunPower announced that they are “Cradle to Cradle” certified. A nonprofit organization known as Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition also produces an annual “Solar Scorecard” that grades panel manufacturers on the safety and sustainability of their manufacturing and disposal practices. 

Finding a Sustainable Solar Solution for Your Home is Easy 

Going solar is an investment in the earth’s future that can also reduce your monthly electric bills. By thoroughly researching solar equipment manufacturers and working with a solar installer that offers the products you want, you can ensure that your solar panel system is as sustainable as possible. Compare solar quotes side-by-side the EnergySage Solar Marketplace to find the right combination of sustainable products, easy financing options, and a well-reviewed installer for your home’s renewable energy needs.

Vikram Aggarwal is the founder and chief executive of EnergySage, the online solar marketplace. EnergySage simplifies the process of researching and shopping for solar. By offering shoppers more choices and unprecedented levels of transparency, EnergySage allows consumers to select the option that provides the best value for them, quickly and easily. Read all of Vikram's posts here.


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