Can Solar Panels Be Recycled?

    Silfab Solar Trivia Contest Banner
    Solar panel recyling

    Anyone who works in the solar industry is intimately aware of the benefits solar energy provides to communities nationwide. Clean, renewable energy bolsters local economies, helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and requires little maintenance over the lifespan of the investment compared to other forms of energy generation. What many industry professionals are unaware of is what pros and cons exist for solar modules at the end of their useful life.

    At of the beginning of 2018, the United States had 53GW of solar capacity deployed. Assuming the average wattage of each solar module installed was 250W, the total weight of all panels deployed equates to 89 billion pounds or 44.5 million tons. Put differently, that’s the equivalent weight of 122 Empire State Buildings in solar modules installed across the country.

    For an industry that prides itself on sustainability, there must be a focus on recycling at the end of a solar project’s lifespan so that landfills don’t overflow with panels. As things currently stand, solar panel recycling is not a huge issue in the US because a vast majority of installations have occurred in the past ten years; nevertheless, the market need for developed recyclers will only increase over time. In fact, a 2016 study by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates the recyclable materials in old solar modules will be worth $15 billion in recoverable assets by the year 2050.

    How are they recycled?

    So can solar panels be recycled? The short answer is yes. Silicon solar modules are primarily composed of glass, plastic, and aluminum: three materials that are recycled in mass quantities.

    Despite the recyclability of the modules, the process in which materials are separated can be tedious and requires advanced machinery. Here are the main steps involved in successfully recycling a silicon module:

    1. Removing the aluminum frame (100% reusable)
    2. Separating the glass along a conveyor belt (95% reusable)
    3. Thermal processing at 500 degrees Celsius
      • This allows for the evaporation of small plastic components and allows the cells to be easier separated.
    4. Etching away silicon wafers and smelting them into reusable slabs (85% reusable)

    Because many European nations installed greater PV capacities in the 1990s, a solar PV module recycling market is steadily maturing. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) of the European Union helped found a member-based organization called PV Cycle to build out a robust recycling infrastructure. Here’s a look inside one of their plants:

    Thus, the US market has plenty to learn from their European counterparts when it comes to PV module recycling. While Washington became the first state to pass a solar product stewardship law last year, more states will have to join this initiative to place greater pressure on manufacturers to develop recycling programs.

    It may seem easy to kick the can down the road when it comes to PV module recycling. After all, these solar panels often last well beyond their 25-year lifespan and continue to negate greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, the long-term success of our industry relies on successfully recovering the raw materials that produce solar modules. If you anticipate your solar company to thrive for the next two decades, it’s time to begin thinking about the responsibility we have to ensure modules stay out of our nation’s landfills.

    Learn More About CED Greentech Engineering

     

    Further Reading:

    Comments

    Max commented 11 months 3 weeks ago

    I have the infrastructure to reuse and refurbish old panels in the middle east for a second life-cycle.
    Has anyone suggestions where I can get larger amounts of panels that would otherwise go to landfill/be shredded?

    Thanks a lot,
    Max

    Ammad Waseem commented 7 months 1 week ago

    Hey Max, happy to hear that you have infrastructure to refurbish PV Module, i want to learn that how you establish this infrastructure. I am from Pakistan interested to establish this infrastructure plz help me in this process. My email is ammad.case@gmail.com.

    Sérgio Mesquita Jr commented 5 months 3 weeks ago

    Hi Max, please get in touch with me as I am also interested in knowing more about your business regarding recycled solar panels
    email me at: sergio.mesquitajr@hotmail.com

    Dinesh commented 3 months 2 weeks ago

    Hi Max,

    Hope you are doing well 🙂.

    I am vey much interested in solar modules recycling process and want to build an infrastructure .
    So I need your help in this .
    Please reach out to me on esolution139@gmail.com.

    Thanks
    Dinesh

    Chris commented 3 months ago

    Great article and we are in a new phase of industry. Like you said many panels are still new and have not reached end of life yet. The next 10 years will really show us what companies are here to stay in the solar panel recycling industry. One company that has a real solid understanding of solar panel recycling on the commercial side is werecyclesolar com I like them because they can really figure out the best situation for your situation, but again they are commercial. Seems most people are looking for help on the residential side. Do you have any good companies for the res side of things? Thanks in advance!

    Thank you for your comments and suggestions. One organization that we point to is PVCycle.org 

    Best of luck and let us know how it goes. Thanks again.

    John M Endres commented 1 month ago

    Why does the silicon from end-of-life solar panels need to be "smelted". Silicon is extracted from silicon dioxide via the carbo-thermic smelting process to obtain the relatively pure (97-99%) merallurgical-grade silicon (which is further purified or refined to approx 99.9999% purity). So, why does the silicon need to be re-smelted via the highly polluting and GHG-emitting carbo-thermic smelting process?

    Tibin commented 1 month ago

    Hi Max,
    I work for a reputable solar company and I would like to know more about your recycling plant, as I have modules to sell and Need a recycling partner . My email Id is tibinthomasfrancis@gmail.com
    Thanks
    Tibin Thomas

    Peter Klitou commented 2 weeks 6 days ago

    We have damaged/broken solar panels available in Europe for recycling. Please contact me if you can offer solution.

    Harald commented 2 weeks 1 day ago

    John M Endres commented 2 weeks 4 days ago
    Why does the silicon from end-of-life solar panels need to be "smelted". Silicon is extracted from silicon dioxide via the carbo-thermic smelting process to obtain the relatively pure (97-99%) merallurgical-grade silicon (which is further purified or refined to approx 99.9999% purity). So, why does the silicon need to be re-smelted via the highly polluting and GHG-emitting carbo-thermic smelting process?

    Answer to John's comment: Unfortunately none of the commercial recycling processes achieve mono material fractions. This means the glass fraction is "contaminated" by silicon or metal pieces or in other words "low value glass". Glass wool or similar products are made from this low value glass, but not the original glass product. Although people call this process recycling, it is rather downcycling. This applies to all other fractions like silicon, too. Some materials are not even extracted, e.g. silver (approximately 10g/panel) or lead. The glass wool for thermal insulation purposes is maybe contaminated by lead. The development of real recycling processes is still on-going, but may take a few years to become commercially available.

    Published
    2 years 2 months ago
    Written by
    Tom Schoder
    Support topic
    Solar panel
    Roof mount
    Support keywords
    solar module recycling
    solar panel recycling
    silicon module recycling
    solar panel disposal