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Rulemaking - Adding Solar Panels to the Universal Waste Regulations

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As the growth in usage and installation of solar panels, also known as photovoltaic (PV) modules, continues so will the need to know how to manage these solar panels as they reach end of life. Because solar panels have a functional life of about 30 years, a sharp increase in the number of end of life solar panels is expected in the next decade. We may have up to 10 million tons of PV waste by 2030, the majority of which is expected to be generated by the utility sector. Most of this waste currently goes to landfills despite heavy metals present in cells that could classify them as hazardous waste (e.g., arsenic, cadmium, lead, silver).

DEC is considering adding solar panels to the Universal Waste (UW) rule. The UW rule, established by EPA in 1995, is a set of reduced requirements for certain commonly generated hazardous wastes. It was created to streamline the collection and recycling of hazardous waste. Recycling helps to prevent hazardous wastes from ending up in landfills while also allowing finite resources to be recovered and avoid resource depletion. Although EPA has not added this waste stream to the federal UW rule, DEC believes that hazardous waste solar panels are misidentified and diverted to non-hazardous waste management streams, both intentionally and unintentionally, and require an improved set of regulations for end of life management. Many consumers believe that products sold to the general public are unlikely to be hazardous wastes when discarded, but that is often not the case.

Waste is generated from different stages of the PV life cycle:

  • Scrap from the manufacturing process
  • Panels damaged during manufacturing, shipment and handling
  • Panels damaged by extreme weather
  • Panels replaced due to technological upgrades
  • Panels discarded after they reach end-of-life

Components that can be recycled from PV waste:

  • Glass (represents 8% of the material value)
  • Plastics in the insulating layer, backsheet, and junction box
  • Aluminum (represents 26% of the material value)
  • Silicon (represents 11% of the material value)
  • Copper (represents 8% of the material value)
  • Other metals (Zn, Ni, Sn, Pb, Cd, Ga, In, Se, Te)
  • Semiconductors in the solar cells
  • Sealants
  • Silver (represents 47% of the material value)

The potential obstacles for recycling:

  • There's no standard or widespread method of recycling
  • There are many types of solar panels and they may need to be recycled differently depending on the construction and chemistry of each type of panel
  • Recycling processes are still being developed
  • Foreign countries are no longer accepting plastics from the United States
  • The value of metals recovered from solar panels can fluctuate and some have been dropping in value
  • Glass needs to be pure to be recycled

Revisions Being Considered for Adoption

Below are the provisions that the DEC is considering adopting as part of the Universal Waste Rule revisions.

6 NYCRR 370.2 - Definitions

DEC is considering adding definitions for "Photovoltaic cell," "Photovoltaic module" and "Photovoltaic system" as well as revising existing definitions to the UW regulations to include photovoltaic modules:

  • Photovoltaic cell, also known as a solar cell, means a specialized semiconductor diode designed to convert solar radiation into electrical energy. Photovoltaic cells are individual cells that are not electrically connected or an integral part of PV modules that are electrically connected. Photovoltaic cells are managed as photovoltaic modules.
  • Photovoltaic module, also known as a photovoltaic panel, solar module, or solar panel, means a device consisting of one or more electrically connected photovoltaic cells that are designed to convert solar radiation into electrical energy. Photovoltaic module includes integrated components that cannot be separated without breaking the photovoltaic module glass. Examples of integrated components include, but not limited to, protective glass, conductive metal contact, metal framing the photovoltaic cells, housing or pocket holding the photovoltaic cells/modules, and top and back layer. Photovoltaic modules are composed of, but are not limited to, monocrystalline silicon, polycrystalline silicon, amorphous silicon, cadmium telluride, copper indium gallium selenide, gallium indium phosphide/gallium arsenide/gallium, and perovskite. Photovoltaic cells that are not electrically connected are managed as photovoltaic modules.
  • Photovoltaic system, also known as a solar system, means a set of components consisting of one or more photovoltaic modules and includes any ancillary components that can be manually separated without breaking the photovoltaic module glass such as, but not limited to, metal frames used to support the photovoltaic module, connectors, junction boxes, batteries, inverters, wires, and cables that are connected to the photovoltaic module.
  • Small Quantity Handler of Universal Waste (SQHUW) means a universal waste handler who does not accumulate 5,000 kilograms or more total of universal waste (batteries, pesticides, thermostats, lamps or photovoltaic modules) at any time.
  • Large Quantity Universal Waste Handler (LQUWH) means a universal waste handler who accumulates 5,000 kilograms or more total of universal waste (batteries, pesticides, thermostats, lamps or photovoltaic modules) at any time. This designation as a large quantity handler is retained through the end of the calendar year in which 5,000 kilograms or more total of universal waste is accumulated

(DEC's Universal Waste webpage has more information on general requirements for universal waste handlers.)

6 NYCRR 374-3 - Solar Panel Universal Waste Standards

DEC is considering the following for facilities managing PV modules as a universal waste:

Container management

  • Allowing handlers to:
    • Sort PV modules by type
    • Mix PV module types in one container
    • Remove the junction box, batteries, inverters and cables
    • Disassemble the PV modules
  • Requiring handlers to:
    • Protect PV modules from sources of heat
    • Conduct storage area inspections

Labeling/ Marking

  • Labeling containers and storage areas for understanding their purpose and hazards: Universal Waste-PV module(s),'' ''Waste PV module(s),'' or ''Used PV module(s)''

Accumulation Time Limits

  • May accumulate waste for no longer than one year from the date the universal waste is generated, or received from another handler

Responses to Releases

  • Must immediately contain all releases of universal waste and other residues from universal waste
  • Must determine whether any material resulting from the release is hazardous waste, and if so, must manage the hazardous waste in compliance with applicable requirements

Employee Training

  • Must train all employees who handle or have responsibility for managing universal waste

Other Provisions

  • Limiting where handlers can send the disassembled PV modules for final management

Request for Comment

DEC is interested in information, data, and comments about any issues or concerns with this rule. Please submit all information, data, or comments by:

Email: HWRegs@dec.ny.gov

or

Mail:
NYS Department of Environmental Conservation
RCRA Compliance and Technical Support Section
625 Broadway
Albany, NY 12233-7256

For additional information about this rule, please call 518-402-8652.


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