What Are Solar Panels Made Of?
4 - Minute Read
PUBLISHED: Sep 12, 2022
What are solar panels made of? It’s a common question. Some homeowners want to reduce their carbon footprint, and they believe solar panels might be better than using fossil fuel energy sources. Many homeowners also want reassurance that solar panels are good for the environment.
Let’s take a look at the materials that go into the manufacturing process of solar cells.
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What Materials Are Solar Cells Made Of?
The most common types of photovoltaic cells – or PV cells – are polycrystalline, monocrystalline and thin-film solar panels. The cells are all made from silicon and other materials, which we’ll explore in-depth.
Silica Sand: Key Ingredient For Solar Cells
Most solar cells are the result of silica sand being converted into high-grade silicon crystals. This requires high-temperature furnaces and an energy-intensive process to extract purified crystalline silicon. The type of silicon used here is also the key ingredient in semiconductors and many other electronic components.
Fortunately, silicon in various forms is the second most abundant element on earth. It’s affordable, has a long lifespan and is easy to optimize for converting solar energy into electricity through the photovoltaic effect.
Turning Sand Into Silicon Crystals
After being purified, the silicon is melted together to produce crystals, which are then formed into ingots that get sliced into thin wafers. The wafers are assembled into silicon solar cells.
These cells become monocrystalline solar panels, while leftover silicon pieces are processed into polycrystalline solar panels. Thin-film amorphous silicon is generally not used on homes because it’s less efficient.
Manufacturers are also able to get more from less silicon. The solar cells manufactured today often use less than a quarter of the silicon used in cells manufactured in 2004, according to studies done by Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems.
Treating The PV Cells
Solar cells need more treatment before being turned into panels. A coating of materials like boron and phosphorus will help conduct electric current.
Common Materials For Solar Module Frames
There’s more to a solar panel than silicon wafers. The panel requires materials like glass, plastic, copper and aluminum to create a frame, encapsulant, junction box and backsheet. Some of the materials, like copper, may also connect the electrical components.
More Metal For Solar Panel Racking
Solar panels typically need a metal framework called racking when mounted on rooftops or on the ground. Solar installers typically use aluminum for racking.
Materials For Other Parts Of A Solar Energy System
The inverter, which converts direct current (DC) from the solar panels into alternating current (AC), uses materials similar to the rest of the system. Solar panel systems that use batteries for energy storage are likely to use other materials. Many of these materials will depend on the battery chemistry, but they could include lead or lithium.
How Are Solar Panels Made?
We’ve covered how silicon is formed into ingots and then into wafers. Those wafers are arranged into rows, wired together and covered in a protective layer of glass or plastic. At this point, the wafers are called solar cells.
The cells are then connected to a conductive base, placed in a frame that insulates them and covered in another layer of glass.
Where Are Solar Panels Made?
The U.S. was dominant in the earlier days of the solar industry, playing a key role in research and development. Today, the solar market is global. The list of top 10 solar panel companies by shipment capacity is dominated by China, but Canada and the United States each have one solar panel company in the top 10.
Choosing a U.S.-based solar company can result in fewer carbon emissions during transport since the panels need to travel a shorter distance than if they were shipped from another country, but this isn’t always the case. Solar panel companies sometimes have factories in countries other than where they’re headquartered, so a company headquartered in another country might actually be more local to you.
Also, you might consider looking into each company’s supply chain and labor practices. The U.S. has been known to blacklist companies with potential red flags.
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FAQ: Solar Panel Materials, Recycling And Environmental Impact
Below are a few common questions about solar panel manufacturing and its environmental impact.
Can Solar Panels Be Recycled?
Some of the materials used to make solar panels can be harmful to the environment, so they are not considered 100% recyclable currently. Fortunately, nearly 70% of a solar panel can be recycled. But not all recyclers are equipped for the process.
Is Making Solar Panels Environmentally Friendly?
While manufacturing solar panels uses energy and water, solar panels emit no greenhouse gases once in operation. The only water that panels need after initial manufacturing is water for occasional cleaning.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, research shows that PV systems produce more energy within 1 – 4 years than was used to manufacture them.
How Long Will My Solar Panels Last?
Many solar panel systems will continue producing clean energy for 25 – 30 years. A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that by the end of a typical 35-year solar panel warranty, the panels would produce power at 87% of their original capacity.
The Bottom Line: Solar Panel Materials Are Abundant
Manufacturing solar panels isn’t a perfect process since it involves emissions and water use. But the long-term clean energy that panels produce within 5 years is likely to offset the environmental impact of manufacturing them.
Ready to take a major step toward improving the environment? We’re ready to help you plan and finance your home solar power system.