Are Solar Panels Recyclable?
Solar panels are mostly made of materials that can be recycled or reused. Components such as glass and certain metals make up 85% of the mass of the solar module and are relatively easy to extract. Polymers and electronic components from solar panels can also be recycled.
The reality of recycling solar panels is more complicated than simply disassembling and reusing the components. Current recycling processes are not very efficient and recovering the materials often costs more than making a new panel.
However, there are significant incentives to optimize the recycling of solar panels: cutting costs, reducing the environmental impact of manufacturing emissions, and avoiding toxic e-waste in landfills. In view of the rapid expansion of solar technology, the recycling of solar modules is playing an increasingly important role in the solar market.
Why recycling solar panels is important
Solar collectors reach the end of their useful life after about 30 years. As the use of solar modules increases, so does the amount of waste from defective or disused modules. A significant increase in the amount of waste from solar modules is imminent. In fact, solar panel waste could account for 10% of all electronic waste in the world by 2050.
Today, around 90% of solar panels end up in landfills, where, like all electronic waste, they leach toxic chemicals into the soil and water supply. (Thin-film solar modules in particular contain relatively large amounts of the toxic metals cadmium, tellurium and indium. A study showed that cadmium telluride solar modules leached up to 62% of their cadmium into the water after just one year.)
Recycling solar modules is not only more environmentally friendly, it also has an economic advantage. Recycled solar panel parts could be valued at an estimated $ 15 billion over the next 30 years and potentially produce up to 630 GW of electricity when used in new modules.
Solar panel recycling by the numbers
- Global solar power generation increased 16% in 2020
- By 2050, almost 86 million tons of solar module waste will be generated in the five largest countries
- 96% of the materials in silicon-based solar modules can be recycled
- 97% of the materials in non-silicon solar modules can be recycled
- Recycling a solar panel can cost anywhere from $ 15 to $ 45
- Disposal in a non-hazardous landfill costs approximately USD 1
- Disposal in a hazardous waste dump costs approximately USD 5
- By 2030, materials extracted from solar panels could be worth up to $ 450 million
- By 2050, the value of the recovered materials could exceed $ 15 billion
This is how the recycling of solar modules works
Glass, plastic and metal – the main components of a solar module – can be recycled independently of one another. In a working solar panel, all of these materials are combined into a single product. The challenge with recycling is to separate the components in order to recycle them efficiently and to address the silicon cells that require a more specialized recycling process.
With all types of solar modules, the cable, junction box and frame must first be removed from the module. Silicon plates are often crushed or shredded, and the materials are then mechanically separated and, depending on the type of material, fed into different recycling processes. In some cases, panels go through a similar process of mechanically separating the components, but then must go through a chemical separation process known as delamination to remove the polymer layer from the glass and semiconductor material.
Components such as silver, copper, aluminum, insulated cables, silicon and glass can be separated mechanically or chemically and recycled. The recycling of components of a cadmium telluride (CtTe) solar module is more complicated than the process for solar modules with cells made of silicon. It includes several steps of physical separation as well as chemical separation and metal precipitation.
Other recycling processes include thermally burning the polymers in the board or even disassembling the components. The “Hot Knife” technology separates the glass from the solar cells by cutting through the plate with a long steel blade heated to 365 to 392 ° F.
Innovations to optimize the recycling process and recover materials with the highest purity are underway. For example, Veolia, a French company, uses robots to separate parts of silicon-based solar panels for recycling and can process 1,800 tons of solar panel materials per year. It is planned to expand this capacity to 4,000 tons by 2021.
The current status of solar panel recycling
When solar manufacturers in the US take back used solar modules, they can either dispose of them or recycle them. Unfortunately, most solar panels in the US end up in landfills due to the labor intensive process of recycling panels and the economics of the process. (If a particular type of plate contains a higher amount of rare earths or valuable metals, it is more likely to be recycled as the benefit of recovering the metals is greater than the cost.)
When solar panels are recycled, it mostly happens in glass recycling plants. The special glass of the solar panels is mixed with normal glass to be used as insulation. In the solar industry, however, there is a big focus on optimizing the recycling process, and countries are looking into the possibility of building new recycling facilities specifically for solar modules.
In 2012, the European Union issued the WEEE Directive, which stipulates the recycling of electronic waste such as solar panels to protect human health and the environment. Because of this regulatory mandate, Europe was the only continent to have recycling centers for recycling solar panels.
Other countries, including Australia, India, Japan and South Korea, are currently developing guidelines and mandates for recycling solar panels. In the USA, the question of solar recycling mandates is left to the states. Washington is currently the only state with such a mandate.
Can solar panels be reused?
Used solar modules are an emerging market. When solar panels are returned to the manufacturer due to a defect under warranty, they are often refurbished and resold when repairs are possible. You may need a new frame, junction box, or even new solar cells. They are then flagged to indicate that they are not new and therefore not as reliable and are up to 70% less resold than brand new panels. These solar modules are marketed as the “second generation” and sold by various suppliers.
How to recycle solar panels
The recycling of solar modules is still in its infancy. For consumers in the United States, this means that recycling your solar panels at the end of their useful life will take some time and research. First, check out a global database of solar panel recycling companies, or see if your state has its own directory for solar recycling, like this one out of North Carolina.
Some solar module manufacturers such as First Solar offer their own take-back and recycling program. Customers can return solar modules at the end of their service life and recycle them from the manufacturer. Contact your manufacturer to find out if they offer this service.