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The Complete Guide To Solar Panel Recycling

Jun 30, 2022

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Many homeowners install solar power systems because they want to help protect the environment and reduce their carbon footprint. However, solar panels have a typical lifespan of about 30 years and it’s important to consider what will happen to the equipment when it is decommissioned. 

If solar panels and other components aren’t properly recycled at their end-of-life, this electronic waste will end up in landfills. Some solar modules are considered hazardous waste, which makes this even more concerning.

Many sustainability-minded people have started wondering what happens to solar panels after 30 years and if their solar panels will end up in landfills contributing to pollution. Because this is a relatively new issue, there isn’t a robust solar panel recycling infrastructure in place yet in the United States, but this is poised to change in upcoming years.

Here’s What Happens As Solar Panels Age

When solar panels are first installed, they produce the most power. Over time, the modules begin to degrade and the output slowly decreases. For example, many solar panels produce about 0.5% less energy each year. Although this might not seem like much, it does add up over time. 

This degradation is normal and is caused by UV rays and adverse weather. Small cracks can form in the silicon and electronics can warp, reducing the solar panel’s output. 

Solar panels don’t usually stop producing power entirely at the end of their lifespan, they just become less efficient in doing so. Eventually, homeowners typically want to replace them with more effective panels.

Luckily, there are sometimes opportunities to reuse these old solar panels in less demanding applications.

What Happens To Old Solar Panels?

If you consider the waste reduction pyramid, source reduction and reuse are better end-of-life options than recycling waste or sending it to a landfill. Reuse doesn’t involve heating the materials down, which can create pollution. The most sustainable option is to reuse functional photovoltaic (PV) solar panels when optimum solar production is no longer necessary. 

It is also possible to fully break down and recycle solar panels, but some challenges exist. For example, because solar technology is relatively new and demand is low for recycling services, there isn’t a robust recycling infrastructure in place across the United States. Also, it is a labor-intensive process, which means it’s costly. 

Are Solar Panels Recyclable?

Solar panels are primarily composed of glass, aluminum and silicon, which are recyclable materials. Unfortunately, PV modules may also contain toxic metals, like lead and cadmium as well as small amounts of other materials that are difficult to recycle because the quantities are so miniscule.

Because there are different types of solar panel technologies, including crystalline silicon and thin-film solar, there are also different recycling processes for them. The racking systems for panels are made of metal, which is readily recyclable into high-value goods. Therefore, it is important to keep solar panels and racking systems out of landfills to conserve resources and space.

Despite the U.S. initially being a leader in solar panel manufacturing, it now lags behind Europe in creating policies to keep solar panels out of landfills and creating a robust recycling infrastructure. Now, it is critical for the U.S. to also scale up recycling programs, create effective policies and improve the solar panel recycling process to conserve raw materials.

How Solar Panels Are Recycled

After decommissioning the solar system, the solar panels can be sent to specialized recycling facilities for processing. From there, the panels are dismantled, removing the frame and junction box to recover the copper and aluminum within. By weight, solar panels are about 70% glass, and most of this is recovered. 

Next, a thermal process is used to heat the remaining materials to over 900℉. This loosens the bonds between the cell elements. Then, the plastic falls off, enabling the silicon solar cells to be recycled. Although this is an energy-intensive process, its recovery rate for silicon is about 85%.

Challenges Of Solar Panel Recycling

Despite solar panels being recyclable, there are many hurdles hindering widespread PV module recycling efforts.

Economic Challenges

The cost of recycling a solar panel in the U.S. is between about $12-$25, not including transportation costs. Although PV panel recycling is relatively labor-intensive and expensive, it does create solar industry jobs for workers that recover these valuable resources. A standard 60-cell solar panel has about $3 of recoverable aluminum, copper and glass. 

Sadly, recycling is more expensive than other options, and it costs less than $1 to dump solar panels in a landfill. There is unfortunately a financial incentive to just send solar panels to landfills instead of a recycling processor.

Although most new panels are more efficient in generating solar energy, they contain fewer valuable materials than many older panels. Unfortunately, this can be a disincentive for future recycling efforts, especially if there aren’t policies promoting them.

Regulatory Challenges

Currently, only about 10% of solar panels are recycled in the U.S., and there are regulatory issues hindering the panel recycling industry. There are no national solar recycling regulations, and only Washington and California have state-level policies. 

By contrast, the European Union (EU) does have solar panel recycling mandates. Plus, Japan, India and Australia may be on track to enact similar policies.

Ideally, solar panels can be recycled to make new ones, or the lifespan of projects can be extended. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is advocating for a circular economy for solar panels, which involves refurbishing modules when possible and repowering solar farms to extend their useful life. 

Environmental Challenges

Solar panels are comprised of numerous materials including an aluminum frame, glass, copper wire, polymer layers, a back sheet, silicon solar PV cells and a junction box. Crystalline-silicon solar is the dominant type of solar panel technology, but some of these panels contain lead. 

Thin-film solar uses non-crystalline silicon, but thin-film solar technology also contains cadmium, which is a toxic metal. Thus, both solar panels and thin-film solar can contain toxins that can leach into groundwater with inadequate disposal. Therefore, for solar energy to realize its full potential in producing clean energy, widespread recycling is critical.

Reusing Solar Panels Presents Another Option

One of the best ways to divert waste from landfills and conserve resources is to reuse and repurpose things, and this certainly applies to solar panels. Although older panels are commonly less efficient in generating energy than newer ones, there are options when efficiency isn’t critical. 

This also creates a secondary market for solar panels that is more affordable. However, these applications may encounter regulatory challenges related to fire, building and electrical codes.

Older solar panels can be repurposed in applications where space isn’t limited, like powering electronic highways signs, garages and greenhouses, or for portable power stations for camping and road trips. 

The Bottom Line: Recycling And Reuse Are Good Methods Of Solar Panel Disposal

For solar energy to generate sustainable power, proper solar panel disposal is essential. Reusing solar panels is the most green option we have currently and can help make solar power more accessible and affordable. When this isn’t an option, recycling is also a good solution, though a more intensive and less common one.

As the solar energy industry matures, it’s essential for solar panel manufacturers to design products that are free of toxic materials and are easy to repair and recycle. If solar manufacturers can produce solar panels that degrade less over time, they could also have a longer lifespan. All of these efforts will help conserve resources and enable truly clean energy generation in the future.

If you’re ready to start producing your own clean energy, connect with a Rocket SolarSM expert today.

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