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Can Solar Panels Be Recycled?

Solar Panel Recycling

Can Solar Panels Be Recycled?

If there ever was an age-old question for a new-age technology, it’s “Can solar panels be recycled?”.  What do you do with solar panels when they are no longer a viable source of energy production?  It is often the number one question that anti-renewable energy folks offer as a response to proponents of solar.

At the end of this post, you will know:Recycling Solar Panels

  • Where we are now and who is leading the way in panel recycling innovation.
  • The components of a panel that can be recycled.
  • The process of recycling panels.
  • Opportunities around recycling solar panels.

Clear Benefits of Solar and The Need to Recycle

There are clear benefits to solar and renewable energy: clean air and water, jobs, and the boost to the economy, to name a few.  Solar provides energy security and long-term energy production solutions that require very little maintenance compared to other sources of energy, to name a few more.  Those of us in the industry talk about these benefits daily.  We live sustainability, so naturally, one question that comes up is the sustainability of the panels themselves.

A Clear Answer on Solar Panel Recycling

Solar Panel Recycling

The confusion about the recyclability of solar panels is rooted in the fact that we have yet to deal with a great number of the hundreds of gigawatts deployed all over the world.   Many that oppose renewables use this as an argument, essentially saying it can’t be done.  But really, the answer to the question, “Can solar panels be recycled?” is YES.  And, the innovation will only get better as we decommission an increasing amount of early solar panel and solar hot water installations.  Panels have proven to exceed their durability expectations.

Leading the Way with Solar Panel Recycling

Although most installs in 2018 are warrantied for 25 years, the energy production is expected to last well beyond the warranty date.  So here we are in 2018 with around 53GW solar capacity deployed in the US. The majority of solar installations have occurred in the last 10-15 years. According to estimations, the number of panels deployed in the US equals about 89 billion pounds, or 44.5 million tons, based on a 250 Watt panel. For perspective, that is an equivalent weight of 122 Empire State Buildings. That is a lot of solar panels that will need recycling at the end of their lifespan and we have not even talked about aging solar hot water systems. We know that to be able to recycle efficiently in the future in the U.S., we need to start focusing on panel recycling technology now. European nations have lead the way in solar installation in the past. Solar systems installed in the 1990’s are now reaching the end of their lifecycle. Due to the demand for the technology to recycle efficiently and the need to recoup the resources dedicated to solar panels, European nations are working to efficiently scale recycling.  The U.S. can learn a lot from their head start.

What Makes Up A Solar Panel?

Glass Recycling
Disassembling a decommissioned solar hot water system.

Silicone-based PV Panels are:

  • 76% glass
  • 10% plastic
  • 8% aluminum
  • 5% silicone
  • 1% Metals

Thin-Film based PV Panels are:

  • 89% glass
  • 4% plastic
  • 6% aluminum
  • 1% metals

What Components in Solar Panels Can Be Recycled?

All of the above.  The three primary components of solar panels, will likely show up in your own recycling bin.  Glass, plastic and aluminum are all recycled in mass quantities.  The technology exists in the U.S. to recycle the materials.  On the flip side, the deconstruction and extraction of the materials from a well designed and manufactured solar panel can be difficult, time-consuming, and will require technological advancement in the machinery used for such a specialized process.

What is the Process to Recycle Solar Panels?

Process to recycle PV Panels
PV Glass is 95% Recyclable!
  • Remove the aluminum frame, this aluminum can be 100% reusable!
  • Using a conveyor belt technique, sorting crushed glass using various methods to separate the glass into reusable pieces. This process helps recycle 95% of the glass.
  • Cells can be separated using thermal procession at 500 degrees Celsius. This process allows for the evaporation of small plastic components and easier separation of the cells.
  • Machinery to etch away silicon wafers, separating the silicone. Smelting occurs transforming 85% of the silicon wafers into reusable slabs.

Opportunities Around Recycling Solar Panels

In summary, there is a lot of solar installed around the world.  The U.S. needs to start thinking about solar panel recycling infrastructure, learning from European nations who are leading the way.  A majority of what makes up a solar panel can be recycled, and inherently, there are plenty of opportunities to create advanced machinery to make the process more efficient.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that recoverable assets in old solar modules will be worth $15 Billion by 2050.  Given the rolling nature of solar installation and decommissioning, solar recycling looks like it will be a viable market for the foreseeable future.  With money to be made in solar panel recycling, it opens opportunities for innovation and a prosperous future for those willing and able to figure it out.  More importantly, solar recycling innovation will add to the already clear benefits of solar and renewable energy, enhance the sustainability of the technology and secure a prosperous (and healthy) future for our planet.

For this piece, we referenced this informative article from one of our partners, Civic Solar.

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