A Circular Economy for Solar Photovoltaic System Materials: Drivers, Barriers, Enablers, and U.S. Policy Considerations

Research output: NRELTechnical Report


As PV capacity increases, owners are also decommissioning older system assets. Estimates based on a 30-year lifetime assumption found that cumulative U.S. end-of-life (EoL) PV modules could total one million metric tons (Mt) by 2030 and up to 10 million Mt by 2050 (Weckend, Wade, and Heath 2016). Beyond maintenance replacements, early retirements that are due to efficiency upgrades and extreme weather, as well as PV deployment beyond earlier expectations, would increase these projections. PV system owners must evaluate equipment management options for used modules and system components retired during maintenance activities, refurbishment, repowering and system decommissioning. PV manufacturers must also evaluate material management options from customer returns, defects, and scrap. Management options for early retired and EoL PV system material include reuse, repair for reuse, recycling-based resource recovery, storage, and disposal. Disposal of PV system material increases the burden on landfill capacity, while reuse, repair for reuse, and recycling-based resource recovery (reuse/repair/recovery) options salvage valuable materials and provide secondary market opportunities and ancillary benefits (Weckend, Wade, and Heath 2016; EPA 2019c; SWEEP 2019). PV system owners may also decide store used modules and components as spares, or in the interim before a reuse or EoL management decision is made. Despite potential secondary market opportunities and the potential benefits associated with the repair/reuse/recovery of PV system material, anecdotal evidence suggests that in the United States decommissioned PV modules are stored, landfilled or otherwise disposed of (Salim et al. 2019; CPUC 2019b; DTSC 2019b; NREL 2019a). Some modules are being disposed of in municipal nonhazardous landfills and federally regulated hazardous treatment, storage, and disposal facilities, and others are being stored in warehouses until economically viable repair/reuse/recycling becomes available (CPUC 2019b; DTSC 2019b; NREL 2019a; Libby and Shaw 2018). As awareness of current practices grows, and the demand for critical PV module material increases, U.S. industry stakeholders, regulators, and policymakers are starting to (1) consider solutions to drive and enable environmentally sustainable materials management decisions and behaviors and (2) identify barriers to a circular economy for PV system materials. Circular economy principles attempt to transition from a "take-make-consume-dispose" linear economic system to a circular system that allows for the long life, and the reuse/repair/recovery of products and materials (Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2020). We begin this report by summarizing the drivers, barriers, and enablers to a circular economy for PV system materials in the United States. We then report on our analysis of federal and state regulatory considerations that may impact the repair/reuse/recovery of PV materials, and potential civil and criminal liabilities associated with noncompliance. We then discuss state policies and initiatives in the United States that expressly address PV system decommissioning and repair/reuse/recovery of PV materials. We conclude by providing case studies of U.S. business models for the repair/reuse/recovery of PV system materials. Our results are based on legal and literature-based research and interviews with solar industry stakeholders, regulators, and policymakers.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages89
StatePublished - 2021

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/TP-6A20-74550


  • circular economy
  • decommission
  • end-of-life
  • modules
  • panels
  • photovoltaic
  • photovoltaic solar
  • policy
  • PV
  • RCRA
  • recycling
  • regulation
  • repair for reuse
  • reuse
  • solar
  • solid waste
  • United States


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