Are Solar Panels Recyclable? A Complete Guide To Solar Panel Recycling

Solar energy is becoming increasingly popular as a clean energy source, but what becomes of the old panels?

Most solar panels can be used for up to 30 years. As more and more solar panels are marketed and installed across the United States, a sizable portion of them will eventually reach and go past their useful lives, and require disposal.

While the recycling procedures for solar panels are still in their infancy, they will become increasingly crucial as this form of renewable energy continues to grow.

Importance of Solar Panel Recycling

Solar power is a great option because it helps the environment and saves money. However, it must be noted that after around 30 years, the energy output of many crystalline silicon solar panels will begin to significantly drop. At this point, they may require disposal or replacement. Each year, a greater number of panels will come to the end of their useful lives, and by 2050, some experts predict that 80 million metric tons of used solar panels would have been discarded.

Already, obsolete panels are becoming a concern since most of them are dumped in landfills, where they can leak pollutants that are bad for the environment and people.

Helps the Environment

As is the case for any manufactured items, solar panel disposal is not very environmentally-friendly. If solar cells containing heavy metals like cadmium and lead are not disposed off or recycled safely, they can turn into hazardous waste. Also, due to the infancy of the panel recycling process, irresponsibly discarded panels can find their way into enormous landfills. Recycling solar panels can help keep obsolete panels away from landfills and, consequently, protect the environment.

Repurposing of Expensive and Rare Elements

Alongside environmental preservation, recycling outdated solar panels can have significant economic effects. As more and more PV cells are produced, the need for rare elements like indium and gallium – which are used in the cells – increases. By recovering these precious resources, we can make the most of their finite supply and keep using them in PV panels as well as in a range of other products.

Moreover, recycling solar modules can help recover up to $15 billion by 2050, according to a 2016 study conducted by the IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency). By reusing and recycling solar panels, we can preserve precious solar module components, free up production capacity, and reduce the overall price of solar energy.

Which Solar Panel Parts Are Recyclable?

recycling solar panels

Solar panels consist of a number of components, including Plexiglas, wires, glass sheets, metal framing, and silicon solar cells.

Immediately, it is evident that a lot of the primary elements of PV panels are recyclable on their own. For example, it is possible to reuse and recycle materials like metal, glass, and copper wiring.

It is a slightly different picture when it comes to silicon cells, the most crucial component for generating power. Although silicon wafers cannot be recycled in the same way that glass or plastic can, some companies that specialize in recycling are able to recycle silicon cells and utilize the silicon and other metals contained inside them.

Technically, as long as the correct processes are used, every component of a solar panel can be recycled.

How Does Solar Panel Recycling Work?

Reuse, chemical recycling, and mechanical recycling are the three most common ways of solar panel recycling. There are benefits and drawbacks to each approach, and it is probable that every process will find a position in the developing solar recycling market. 

Reusing Solar Panels

So far, we have used the term 'recycling' to refer to the process of dismantling solar panels in order to reuse their individual components. However, the idea of "reusing" solar panels offers an alternative approach to the issue of solar waste.

Since re-using solar panel components requires little processing, it is a very tempting approach to PV recycling. However, after their warranty expires, solar panels often produce far less energy than they did when they were new, making them largely worthless for the generation of solar power. There is still a market for second-hand solar panels, but this is not a sustainable solution to the inevitable waste problem that will arise.

In modest, off-grid applications – where it isn't crucial to generate electricity as efficiently as possible –reusing solar panels makes sense. The approach is also applicable for more specialized solar chargers, such as those used to power electronic highway signs or refuel an e-bike charging station. Other than that, refurbished or used solar panels cannot belong to larger solar modules since they do not produce sufficient electricity.

Mechanical Recycling

Mechanical recycling, the first of the two actual "recycling" processes for solar panels, consists of physically breaking the solar panels down into their various components. The aluminum frame of a panel could be stripped away in the most basic mechanical recycling procedure. Glass, wire, silicon, and other metals that aren't reused are pulverized into a mixture called a ‘glass cullet’. In fact, glass cullet is sometimes employed in construction and building.

Mechanical techniques are used by some businesses to extract more useful components from panel frames than merely aluminum. Physically separation of the smaller components of solar panels, such as the silicon or the intra-cell wiring, can also be done using machines, but demands a lot more time and precision.

Chemical Recycling

Chemical recycling (also known as thermal recycling) is one of the most promising areas of solar recycling. Chemical recycling uses processes at the molecular level to separate the materials in a solar panel, while mechanical recycling is constrained by the extent to which a procedure can physically detach the various components.

Examples of companies employing chemical recycling include the French startup, ROSI solar, which uses a chemical method to remove the microscopic silver wires that transfer power through silicon cells in a functioning solar panel.

Other Ways to Reuse Old Solar Panels

recycling solar panels

Powering Residences With Lower Energy Needs

The amount of monthly power used by the typical American home is approximately 877 kWh. There's no need to immediately toss out your old PV panels the moment they become incapable of producing that amount of energy anymore. They can be given to a nonprofit that refurbishes old solar panels for use in community service instead. For such projects, any quantity of energy is worth it.

Often, these donated solar panels make their way to Mexico and other parts of Central America, where annual home electricity usage is as low as 500 kWh. Others end up in various African countries, where the monthly electricity usage can be under 100 kWh per year. Older panels can still supply enough energy to run homes, machinery, and devices in these areas where the electricity consumption is significantly lower than in the average American home.

DIY Projects

Even if your solar panels are not as efficient as they used to be, they can still serve a useful purpose. If you are inventive or handy, you can use old solar panels for a variety of DIY projects, such as:

Greenhouses

Glass is used for both greenhouses and solar panels. The concepts can be combined to create a system that will keep your plants toasty through the colder months.

Camping Trips

Aging solar panels can be a terrific way to have electricity while you're far from the power grid, particularly if you link the solar panels to a portable solar generator.

Furniture

Depending on your skills and the amount of time you have, you can convert obsolete PV panels into a variety of furniture and art pieces.

Powering Smaller Spaces

Even if your solar panels are not producing enough energy to light your entire house, you can still put their electricity to good use in other areas. Used solar panels are a common source of energy for outbuildings like garages, cabins, playhouses, and even miniature dwellings.

Getting these areas disconnected from the national grid is a fantastic approach to reducing energy costs and increasing the availability of beneficial uses and features.

The Current Solar Panel Recycling Picture In The US

Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and alternative energy sources in general, are in extremely high demand. The United States achieved 100 GWdc (Gigawatts) of total solar power capacity in the first quarter of 2021. In other words, the country has managed to double its solar energy capacity within 4 years. As per forecasts, there will be an additional 160 GW added to the market in the next five years.

This sustained growth is reflective of a crucial step in the fight against climate change before it hits a critical tipping point. Many proponents of green energy feel that the next step toward a greener future should involve taking steps to improve the tech and rates of solar panel recycling, to prevent the disposal of obsolete panels in landfills. If the solar panels in the US are not effectively recycled, the present solar panel generation could add up to a million tons of wastage by the end of this decade.

Today's solar panels are more inexpensive and dependable than ever before, with a typical lifespan already exceeding 25 years and efficiencies approaching 25%. Hence, if you have only recently started using solar energy, you will not have to worry about disposing off your panels for many years to come.

Having said that, the key challenge for the solar industry lies in making solar panels recyclable is to develop more effective recycling methods before the current solar panels reach the end of their useful lives.

Improvements in PV Recycling Tech

The tech for solar panel recycling has advanced and become cheaper over the past decade as industry leaders work to better the process.

The idea is to uncover future usefulness and solve some of the existing solar panel recycling issues by concentrating on components that currently unrecyclable, such as tin, lead, and other heavy metals.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for instance, has started looking at developing such an integrated, high-value recycling system. A primary goal of the method is the complete and highly pure recovery of all starting materials and components. Scientists, supporters of solar panels, and environmentalists all endorse this concept. Although it's still in the works, this technology has the potential to completely eliminate the issue of recycling old solar panels.

Solar Panel Recycling Is The Key to Maximizing Solar Sustainability

While the existing procedures for recycling solar panels are neither easy nor comfortable, advancements are being made in this area by the solar sector. Fortunately, the average lifespan of a solar panel is 25 to 30 years, giving the industry plenty of time to develop improvements before the vast majority of panels reach the end of their useful life and contribute no more to the planet's energy needs.

If you are looking for recyclable portable solar panel options, we invite you to explore our wide range of options. We offer many different types of portable solar panels, generators, and kits made entirely of recyclable materials and can help you choose one based on your need, location, and budget.

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