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by Emma Foehringer Merchant
November 24, 2020

For all of the idyllic visions of solar blanketing the globe, sun glinting off the glass like modernist amber waves, there’s comparatively little consideration of the final resting place of those same panels: lying in landfills, their power sapped.

The most environmentally friendly solution, of course, is recycling them instead. But opportunities are currently expensive, limited and dependent on geography. Thus far, the repercussions of that minimal market are narrow; panels are designed to last two or three decades, and most large solar installations haven’t hit that age yet. By 2030, however, the mass of panels reaching the end of their useful lives will hit 8 million metric tons, according to the International Energy Agency.  

That means the solar industry — if it’s to live up to its sustainable bona fides — will need an economically viable solution to deal with the equipment. As time ticks toward 2050, a year when several countries, utilities and U.S. states have said they’ll hit net-zero emissions, solar is slated to become an increasingly large portion of the electricity mix. And the challenge of what to do with all the defunct panels will only grow.