top of page
AdobeStock_81687188_BW(1).jpg
Search

Decommissioning Solar Panels: What Happens When An Installation Reaches End-Of-Life

Updated: Dec 19, 2023


Decomissioning solar panels

As solar capacity increases, so will the eventual need to decommission photovoltaic (PV) projects. Although this will become a bigger issue in the next decade or two, some solar panels are being decommissioned today. Perhaps the solar array had defective solar panels, the manufacturer no longer exists, or the output of an older project is unimpressive compared to the high-efficiency solar panels and equipment readily available today.


Although few solar companies decommission solar energy systems, it is a straightforward process that is a lot like solar panel installation in reverse. However, instead of procuring PV panels and equipment, you’ll hopefully be repurposing or recycling them. Decommissioning solar systems is a growing business opportunity with increasing demand.


What Does It Mean To Decommission Solar Panels?


Decommissioning large-scale commercial solar farms involves removing all the PV panels and components and restoring the project site. The solar equipment includes the racking system, wiring, inverters, transformers, wiring, conduit, fencing, and foundations, which can often be repurposed or recycled. Restoring the site can include de-compacting soils, backfilling excavations, removing access roads, and revegetation or returning the land to agricultural use.


Some states have laws in place that impact the solar decommissioning process by requiring solar developers to create a decommissioning plan for solar farms of a certain size. Plus, some require financial assurance, such as a surety bond, to follow the decommissioning plan. In addition, Washington State has a law requiring solar panel manufacturers “to provide the public a convenient and environmentally sound way to recycle all modules purchased after July 1, 2017.”


The Decommissioning Process For Solar Panels


Solar contractors begin by creating a decommissioning plan or referring to an existing plan, if available, for dismantling the equipment and returning the land to its original state. It’s important to conduct research before starting this process to determine if local ordinances or solar decommissioning laws exist in your state, so you know what you are legally required to do. In addition, it can be helpful to determine how the landowner wants to use the land in the future.


It’s critical to identify where the materials will go after dismantling the solar farm and if reusing the solar panels and other equipment is an option. Some companies specialize in removing, transporting, and refurbishing solar panels. Many solar photovoltaic plant owners value sustainability during the decommissioning process, so repurpose solar panels and equipment whenever feasible and minimize waste going to landfills.


Decommissioning a solar project requires similar safety equipment as the installation process. It’s critical to turn off the solar system to promote worker safety. Likewise, equipment, such as skid-steer loaders and excavators, are needed to remove and transport the dismantled solar panels, racking, fencing, foundations, and equipment and to perform site work.



What Can You Do With The Decommissioned Components?


When you create a solar decommissioning plan, identify what you will do with the solar panels, inverters, racking system, and other components.


Repurposing Solar Panels and Equipment


Some companies are taking advantage of business opportunities related to end-of-life management by specializing in refurbishing and selling used PV modules and components. Although older solar panels typically produce less electricity than when they were new, many still generate clean energy. Therefore, there is a secondary market for PV modules and other components.


If you plan to reuse or resell the solar panels, handle them carefully when dismantling the system to avoid damage. Some companies, such as FabTech Services and We Recycle Solar, specialize in refurbishing and selling used solar panels. Other installers sell reusable modules directly to clients, other solar installers, and online or donate them to charities. Also, selling or donating second-hand solar panels locally helps reduce shipping costs and greenhouse gas emissions.


Recycling PV Panel And Components


Not all modules are suitable for reuse, and other disposal options are necessary. Although many of the materials in solar modules are recyclable, they can be quite expensive because of the labor involved in dismantling them. However, solar panel recycling is more sustainable than disposing of them in landfills, and recycling facilities help conserve raw materials.


The SEIA launched the National PV Recycling Program and has designated Preferred Recycling Partners that meet the SEIA’s standards. Solar inverters are commonly recycled with electronic waste and racking systems with similar metal scrap. As more solar installations reach the end of their useful lives, the ease of recycling component parts will hopefully equally improve.


Can Solar Panels Go To Landfills?


Unfortunately, if solar panels are not adequately disposed of, they can leach chemicals into groundwater, polluting it. Also, solar PV panels contain a lot of raw materials, including copper, steel, aluminum, zinc, and silver, that will be wasted if disposed of in landfills. Therefore, proper handling and recycling are essential to ensure that the solar PV industry reduces the amount of waste they add to landfills.


How Much Does It Cost To Decommission A Commercial Solar System?


The costs of decommissioning solar farms vary depending on their size, location, and complexity. Covering the decommissioning expenses is the responsibility of the project owner, not the local community or landowner.


Some of the most labor-intensive aspects of removing the solar equipment include dismantling and removing the racking system and removing ground screws and power poles. If you’re creating a decommissioning plan for the future, also factor in inflation.


Estimated decommissioning costs for a 2-megawatt solar farm in Massachusetts include the costs of dismantling a project, but not equipment disposal costs, which vary depending on if there is a secondary market for repurposed components. The costs outlined below are estimates; actual decommissioning costs may vary.

Decommissioning Tasks

Estimated Costs for 2 MW Solar Farm

Remove Rack Wiring

$2,450

Remove PV Panels

$2,450

Dismantle Racking System

$12,350

Remove Electrical Equipment

$1,850

Break Up and Remove Pads or Ballasts

$1,500

Remove Racking System

$7,800

Remove Cables

$6,500

Remove Ground Screws and Power Poles

$13,850

Remove Fencing

$4,950

Land Grading

$4,000

Seed Disturbed Areas

$250

Truck to Recycling Center

$2,250

Total

$60,200


Decommissioning Solar Power Plants Is Becoming Increasingly Common


Although solar power systems are designed to last decades, some owners are choosing to decommission PV projects early in favor of newer models or for other reasons. Because the solar industry is relatively young, this aspect of the market is still evolving. In particular, the secondary market for solar panels and equipment is rapidly changing. Solar decommissioning services can create business opportunities for some solar companies wishing to expand their offerings.


Read more about the solar industry and market trends on the GreenLancer Blog.



bottom of page