California Rule Facilitating the Recycling of Photo voltaic Panels Takes Impact January 1, 2021 | Wiley Rein LLP

In California, a new regulation will come into force on January 1, 2021, which enables generators of decommissioned solar modules (photovoltaic or PV modules) to treat them as universal waste more economically than hazardous waste under applicable California law. This is the first rule in the country to identify solar panels as general waste to ease administrative burdens and facilitate recycling.

Almost 100% of the materials in a solar module are recyclable or reusable. However, the modules often contain heavy metals such as cadmium, copper, lead, selenium and silver. The presence of these metals can cause discarded panels to have the hazardous waste characteristic of toxicity and therefore be classified as hazardous waste under the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the more stringent California Hazardous Waste Control Act. This classification makes it expensive and time-consuming to store, handle and transport used panels for recycling or disposal in accordance with applicable regulations.

Starting January 1, 2021, decommissioned solar panels will be regulated like other general purpose waste in California, including batteries, electronic devices, devices containing mercury, lamps, cathode ray tubes and aerosol cans. The new regulation makes collecting, processing and recycling cheaper and more complex.

Key components for the new regulation for solar modules

Among other benefits of the new regime, storage of decommissioned panels is allowed for up to a year, and the use of hazardous waste manifests and hazardous waste carriers is not required. There are also no storage quantity restrictions.

Other important elements of the regulations for handlers are the notification and annual reporting to the CA department for the control of toxic substances, the labeling (Universal Waste-PV Modules), the training of the employees, the handling to prevent breakage and release, reaction to Release, containment and recording. Universal waste collectors are also empowered to perform certain treatment activities, including removing user-replaceable panel components and disassembling panels – removing or physically separating components (panes of glass, metal frames, PV cells, and bags). Physical treatment activities, including severing, cutting, sawing, breaking, crushing, crushing, sieving, and compacting, are also permitted. However, the rule prohibits universal waste collectors from using or applying chemicals, including water and / or external heat, to solar panels.

Interaction with the Universal Waste Management Regulations of the US EPA

Decommissioned solar modules are subject to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act – a federal law governing the disposal of hazardous waste. The EPA regulations under the RCRA contain provisions for handling general purpose waste. Currently, however, EPA regulations do not treat decommissioned solar panels as universal waste. RCRA allows states to implement and manage their own hazardous waste requirements as long as the state program is approved by the EPA. In that case, California is allowed to include solar panels in its universal waste regulations, as the EPA approved the changes to California’s universal waste program earlier this year. Other states are likely to monitor what happens in California under the new rule to see if they want to follow suit. Many in the industry expect the new California rule to be a regulatory model for other states, as the number of decommissioned PV solar panels is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. Industry also speculates that the US EPA might update its own universal waste regulations to include solar panels.

Solar usage is growing in California and electrical panels are due to be replaced

California has long been a leader in solar power generation – 21,074 MW of installed solar capacity – followed by North Carolina with 4,308 MW far behind. But this year, a new era began in California in which all newly built houses must be equipped with solar photovoltaic systems (e.g. solar panels or tiles). This standard applies to all new residential buildings installed from January 1st, 2020. California is so far the only US state that mandates the use of solar energy for residential purposes.

Solar modules have an average lifespan of 25 years and a wave of older modules is expected to be phased out over the next 5 to 6 years, which is vital waste management options. According to a study by the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), PV solar waste in the US may increase from 1.3 million tons in 2040 to 5.5 million tons in 2050. Worldwide, the estimate is 80 million tons of tons produced in 2050.

Solar energy is also expected to play a huge role in President-elect Joe Biden’s efforts to make the U.S. energy sector carbon-free by 2035 and the country net carbon-free by 2050. In addition, the new government and Congress will likely consider extending an existing federal residential solar tax credit that expires in late 2021. The tax credit reimburses taxpayers 26% of the cost of solar panels for the 2020 tax year and 22% for the 2021.

The new CA regulation, which comes into force on January 1, 2021, will be published on the DTSC website at https://dtsc.ca.gov/regs/pv-modules-universal-waste-management/.

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