The billion-dollar question many solar energy customers ask themselves is: "Can you recycle solar panels?"
The short answer is yes. You can recycle solar panels. The long answer requires a bit more explanation. (But don’t worry, we’re here to provide that explanation!)
We’re all familiar with the benefits of a home solar power system:
- Reduces dependence on fossil fuels
- Curbs greenhouse gas emissions
- Can increase the value of your home
- Benefits the electric grid
- Combats rising electricity costs
However, what happens to solar panels when they no longer create enough electricity to power your home? Is it possible to reuse old solar panels, and if so, how?
In this solar panel recycling guide, we'll dig into the current solar panel recycling process, solar panel recycling problems, advancements being made for the future of photovoltaic recycling, what happens with aging solar panels, and share other ways you can reuse old solar panels.
Are Solar Panels Recyclable?
Yes, solar is recyclable, and solar panels can be recycled and reused. However, the process of making solar panels recyclable is a bit nuanced, especially as the current recycling methods are actively being improved, and new ones are being researched.
To help you better understand this concept, let's take a look at the current state of recycling for solar panels.
The Current State of Solar Panel Recycling in the US
The demand for solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, and clean energy in general, continues to skyrocket. In the first quarter of 2021, the U.S. surpassed 100 Gigawatts (GWdc) of total installed capacity from solar power, representing a doubling of that capacity in less than 4 years. The industry is also slated to add another 160 GW over the next 5 years.
This continued growth represents a strong step forward in the quest to stop climate change before we reach an irreversible tipping point. That said, many clean energy advocates believe that the next step towards a clean energy future should focus on improving solar panel recycling rates and technology to keep old panels out of landfills. Decommissioning the current generation of solar panels could add up to 1 million tons of waste in the US by 2030 if the panels aren’t recycled.
With average solar panel lifespans passing 25 years and efficiencies creeping toward 25%, the solar panels being made today are more affordable and reliable than ever before. Thankfully, you won’t have to worry about what to do with your aging panels for multiple decades, but the challenge for the industry with making solar panels recyclable is to create better recycling technologies by the time your panels reach the end of their life.
The Lifespan of Solar Panels
The average solar panel lasts 25-30 years, but the solar industry uses that range as a guide. Not only does the life of your panels depend on the manufacturer and the solar panel's performance, but it's also possible that your solar panels will produce electricity for longer than that timeline.
Thus, think of the first 25 to 30 years after your solar is installed as the PV system's "useful life." While solar panels can still produce electricity for decades longer, they slowly degrade over time in terms of efficiency. They don't just stop working after year 25, but on average, solar panel efficiency degrades at a rate of around 1% each year.
To learn more about this topic, read our article detailing the lifespan of solar panels.
What Can We Do With Aging Solar Panels?
What can you do with solar panels that have outlived their usefulness? After your panels' useful life, they will still produce electricity, but they just don't create the amount of power your home needs. For the sake of our planet's future, we must consider ways to extend the life of solar panels and reduce solar panel waste even before we send them off to be recycled.
Since we’re optimists and huge clean energy fans here at Palmetto, we want to focus on proactive and creative solutions to the challenge of aging solar panels, and how the industry is making solar panels recyclable.
Solar Panels Can Be Reused
While the solar industry works to improve the science of PV recycling, there are other options for how to reuse solar panels that aren't efficient enough to power your house. Top options available for the average consumer include:
Power Homes with Lower Electricity Needs
The average US household consumes around 877 kWh of electricity per month. Once your PV panels have aged, they probably won't hit this mark, but it’s not time to throw them away just yet. Instead, they can be donated to a company that repurposes decommissioned panels and uses them for volunteer projects. For those types of projects, any amount of energy helps.
Some of these donated panels end up in Mexico and across Central America, where the average household electricity consumption can be just 500 kWh per year, while others make their way to various countries in Africa where the figure is as low as 100 kWh per year. In such locations, older panels can still power homes, devices, and machinery with lower electricity consumption than the typical American home.
Imaginative DIY Projects
You don't have to limit the use of older solar panels to just supplying electricity. If you’re extra handy or inventive, you can use older panels to complete a wide range of do-it-yourself tasks. Our favorites include:
- Greenhouses - Both solar panels and greenhouses are made of glass. By combining the two concepts, you can keep your plants warm throughout the cooler months.
- Furniture - Old PV panels can be converted into a range of different furniture items or art pieces, depending on your abilities and available time for the project.
- Camping Trips - Aging solar panels can be a great way to have power when you're miles away from the electricity grid, especially if connected to a portable solar generator for power after the sun goes down.
Power Smaller Spaces
Your panels might not be able to create enough power for your entire home, but you can still use them for electricity in other areas. We’ve seen older solar panels get used to power sheds, garages, tiny homes, vacation cottages, kid playhouses, and more. Taking these spaces off the grid is a great way to save energy and add useful features and benefits.
Solar Panel Demand Can Be Reduced
Reducing the amount of electronic waste caused by solar panels is the first step towards building a clean energy future. Homeowners can contribute to this goal of reducing solar waste problems by increasing the energy efficiency of their homes so they save energy and money, and need fewer panels to power their home. Our recommended tips include:
- Sealing all windows
- Unplugging unused chargers
- Installing low-flow showerheads
- Turning off unnecessary water
- Replacing incandescent bulbs with LED light bulbs
- Installing a programmable thermostat
- Utilizing smart home devices to save energy
Improving the efficiency of how your home uses electricity means you need fewer panels to power your home, which in turn reduces the total amount of materials turned into solar panels. Reducing the amount of material we need to recycle in the first place is a win-win for both homeowners and the planet.
Solar Panels Can Be Recycled
Once you’ve exhausted the options for reducing and reusing, it’s time to address that pending e-waste glut with solar panel recycling, so they don't end up in landfills.
Recycling or repurposing old solar panels has the potential to unlock a huge, invaluable stock of raw materials in the near future. In fact, according to a recent study conducted by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) the recyclable materials in old photovoltaic solar models (like indium and gallium) will be worth $15 billion in recoverable resources by the year 2050.
Recycling photovoltaic panels is undoubtedly the future of renewable energy. If we're going to create a better future, we need to take proactive steps.
The Current Recycling Process
To better understand what goes on during solar panel recycling, let's first look at the composition of this high-tech electronic equipment.
According to the US Department of Energy, about 95% of panels sold today are crystalline silicon, which is the semiconductor material used in solar cells. Made to withstand decades of exposure to elements, the interconnected PV cells of solar panels are encased in plastic and sandwiched between glass and a back sheet. A metal frame typically made of aluminum holds the whole setup together. On the back of the panel, there's a junction box containing external copper wiring.
Now let’s review the actual process of how a recycling plant can recycle silicon solar panels and reuse that material, which can require complex machinery to deal with large amounts of material, and involves multiple rounds of mechanical and chemical separation to deal with any hazardous waste.
- Initial dismantling: The junction box and frame are separately removed from the pv modules to recover copper and aluminum. Both of these materials are 100% reusable, so nothing goes to waste here.
- Glass recovering: The rest of the module goes along a conveyor belt to recover the glass sheets. The glass recovered here is at least 95% reusable.
- Heat separation: The remaining materials are treated at 500 degrees Celsius in a thermal processing unit that loosens the bonds between the cell elements. The plastic eventually falls off, leaving the silicon cells to be processed further. To make sure nothing goes to waste, the plastic is incorporated back into the recycling process for heating purposes.
- Cell separation: In this step, the interconnected PV cells are mechanically separated. 80% of them are reusable while the rest have to undergo further refinement before they can be reused.
- Silicon capture: The remaining product undergoes further refinement to capture more silicon. Sizeable pieces of silicon recovered here are melted to be used again for manufacturing new PV panels. As for the silicon that is in crushed or particle form, it's etched away using acid. The overall recycling rate of the silicon material is about 85%.
Compared to silicon solar panel recycling, thin-film panel recycling is more drastic. First, the panels go into a shredder, followed by a hammermill, until all particles are no bigger than 4-5mm in size. The remaining substance is a mix of solid and liquid, so a rotating screw helps separate the two materials.
Liquids from the thin-film panels pass through a precipitation and dewatering process to guarantee purity. Then a metal processing step separates the semiconductor materials, with an average of 95% of the semiconductor material being available for reuse.
Solids from the thin-film panels pass over a vibrating surface that helps remove the interlayer materials. Then it goes through a rinsing step, leaving behind pure glass, with an average of 90% being available for re-manufacturing.
Advancements in Photovoltaics Recycling Technology
The solar panel recycling technology of 10 years ago is not the same as that of today, as innovators in the industry continue to seek improvements and bring down the cost of recycling.
By focusing on solar panel components that aren't recycled today—including heavy metals like lead and tin—the goal is to find more usefulness in the future, and overcome some of the current solar panel recycling problems.
For example, research has begun at the National Research Energy Laboratory into a high-value, integrated recycling system. At its core, the technology aims to recover all materials and components at high purity. Researchers, solar panel advocates, and clean energy enthusiasts all vouch for this idea. Although still in the development stages, this technology could revolutionize the industry and make solar panel recycling problems a thing of the past.
Where and How To Recycle Solar Panels
Solar panel recycling technology might be in its early days, but that doesn't mean the average solar panel owner can't join in on this important initiative.
If you’re looking to recycle your own solar panels, start by checking to see if your state maintains its own directory for solar recycling, like this one from North Carolina. You can also examine this global directory of solar panel recycling firms for options in your area.
Some PV panel manufacturers offer their own take-back and recycling programs for scrap, warranty returns, and end-of-life. You can reach out to your manufacturer directly to find out if they offer services to recycle pv.
While the current solar panel recycling process isn’t simple or convenient, the solar industry continues to make strides in improving the technology. What works in the planet’s favor is that the current solar panel lifespan is 25 to 30 years, which means the industry still has plenty of time to make the necessary changes and enhancements before a majority of solar panels reach the end of their lifetime.
It’s also important that we do what we can to reduce the impending e-waste glut, instead of relying solely on recycling. The average homeowner can help the situation by reducing their energy usage and reusing aging solar panels if possible.
Thankfully, you don't have to do it alone. Palmetto is leading the world towards a clean energy future by providing affordable solar power to eligible homeowners, and keeping an eye on the options available for the time when those solar panels are ready for a second life.