The changing state of retiring solar panels

By Mr. Dwight Clark, Chief Compliance Officer

On Jan. 1, California will be the first state in the nation to add hazardous waste solar panels to its universal waste program, a move intended to promote solar panel recycling and reuse and to keep them out of landfills. This reclassification will have significant implications on how spent PV solar panels are managed in the state. Many of the changes are positive

Prior to this change, PV solar panels have been subject to the full requirements of California’s hazardous waste regulations, because discarded solar panels may potentially exhibit hazardous waste characteristics. These current California regulations state the generators of solar panel waste, (such as the project owner, project operator, or other service provider) bear the burden of performing testing to confirm if their material is hazardous. This determination can involve costly and technically challenging sampling of the PV solar panel to determine this characteristics. But under the universal waste classification proposed in that state, project operators, waste handlers and transporters can opt to treat the panels as universal waste without the need for testing.

By being classified as universal waste, PV solar panels will now be subject to a streamlined set of standards, compared to other types of hazardous waste, that are intended to ease regulatory burden and promote recycling. For example, under the universal waste requirements, handlers may accumulate PV solar panels for up to one year, while the general hazardous waste requirements only allow accumulation for 90 days (for large quantity generators). This longer accumulation period will allow handlers to transport the solar panels to destination facilities in bulk rather than on a more frequent basis, lowering transportation costs, one of the largest variables in disposal of PV solar panels. In addition, the universal waste requirements include fewer labeling and recordkeeping requirements and also allow waste to be transported without a hazardous waste manifest.

What PV solar panels does this rule apply to?

  1. The PV solar panel(s) must first be a “waste”. This means, in the context of this rule, as a PV solar panel that has no known market(s) for its use as a PV solar panel.
    • This includes not only used solar modules that are removed but units that are held within the supply chain (as unused solar modules) in which a decision has been made to dispose of the units or have become retrograde.
    • “Retrograde material” means any hazardous material which is not to be used, sold or distributed for use in an originally intended or prescribed manner or for an originally intended or prescribed purpose and which meets any one or more of the following criteria:(a)(1) has undergone chemical, biochemical, physical or other changes due to the passage of time or the environmental conditions under which it was stored; (2) has exceeded a specified or recommended shelf life; (3) is banned by law, regulation, ordinance or decree; (4) cannot be used for reasons of economics, health or safety or environmental hazard.
  2. The PV solar panel(s) must meet the exhibit the Toxicity Characteristic of a Hazardous Waste. This includes three different tests for metals, both leachable and total concentration. These tests are known as TCLP, STLC, and TTLC – each with different threshold levels for different metals. It can take a small concentration of very common elements to make hazardous in California. For example an average sized PV solar panel only needs to contain about 47 grams of copper, 19 grams of lead, or 2 grams of cadmium within the device as whole.

Who are the organizations affected by this rule?

Note: The universal waste rules use the term Handler to cover many types of activities, including that of the generator of the Universal Waste.

  1. A solar site (Owner and/or Operator) – Can become a handler of UW by the generation of the waste when removed from service.
  2. An O&M operator or another Service Provider can become a transporter of UW by transporting the solar modules in thiner vehicles. ( If a universal waste handler self-transports universal waste offsite, the universal waste handler becomes a universal waste transporter for those self-transportation activities)
  3. An O&M operator or another Service Provider can become a handler of UW at their location by receipt of the UW Solar Modules generated at another site.
  4. An OEM or others in supply chain can become a handler of UW at their location by un-used Solar Modules that become retrograde

What are the authorized activities as a Universal Waste Handler?

  1. A Universal Waste Handler that Manages only PV modules that are intact (except for the occasional PV module that is accidentally or unintentionally broken) and ensures that the intact PV modules remain intact (except for the occasional PV module that is accidentally or unintentionally broken and that is managed) throughout the entire time they are in the universal waste handler’s custody – Is not considered to be conducting treatment and is exempt from the requirements for treatment in the rule.
  2. Allowed to remove and replace components –   A universal waste handler shall conduct the removal of the discrete assemblies in the manner that is prescribed in the operating manual for the electronic device, or PV system or in a manner that would otherwise reasonably be employed during the normal operation and maintenance of the electronic device or PV system. Though, the glass must not be broken….
  3. A universal waste handler shall immediately contain all releases of universal wastes and of residues from universal wastes to the environment.

What are the compliance activities required by a Universal Waste Handler to meet this rule?

  1. Registration at least 30 calendar days prior to accepting PV Modules. Note: Each location is considered a separate handler unless on contagious property, therefore, notification  shall be made for each location at which the universal waste handler accepts or accumulates PV modules from an offsite source, i.e., the handler’s facility
  2. Conduct Training for all personnel who manage universal wastes at the universal waste handler’s facility are thoroughly familiar with proper universal waste management and emergency response procedures relative to those persons’ responsibilities.
  3. Package all Intact PV modules that are managed in a manner that prevents breakage of the PV modules and release of constituents of the PV modules to the environment under reasonably foreseeable conditions (e.g., stretch-film on a pallet). All PV modules with broken glass or otherwise not intact shall be cleaned up and placed in a container.
  4. Label PV modules (i.e., each PV module), or a container or pallet in or on which the PV modules are contained or placed within a designated area demarcated by boundaries, shall be labeled or marked clearly with the following phrase: “Universal Waste-PV module(s)”.
  5. Store PV modules for no longer than one year from the date the universal waste was generated, or was received from another universal waste handler.
  6. Maintain Records of each shipment of universal waste that is received or shipped from the universal waste handler’s facility.
  7. Report to DTSC to generation and / or acceptance of PV modules under this rule annually by Feb 1

What is prohibited by this rule?

  1. A universal waste handler is prohibited from disposing of universal waste [however, a universal waste handler may send PV modules that are universal wastes to a destination facility for disposal];
  2. A universal waste handler is prohibited from diluting or treating universal waste, except by responding to releases or by managing specific wastes allowed under the UW rules.
  3. A universal waste handler, that is not authorized for treatment, is prohibited to intentionally break glass.
  4. A Universal Waste Destination Facility operator is prohibited to conduct any treatment that uses chemicals including water or external heat – restricts to physical separation techniques and segregation by physical properties.
  5. A universal waste transporter is prohibited from transporting more than 100 kilograms or 220 pounds of electronic devices at any one time unless the PV modules are contained.

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