Can solar panels be recycled?
With the growth of solar power exploding, there are hundreds of millions of solar panels installed each year. In decades, these panels will fail. Can they be recycled?
One of the reasons that many homeowners add solar panels to their roof is to help contribute to a better environment.
When it comes to climate change, solar panels absolutely are net positive. In 3 or 4 years they “pay back” the energy that was used to manufacture them, after which they generate clean electricity for another couple decades. Coal and gas-fired power plants, in contrast, are never clean sources of energy. They spew pollution for as long as they operate.
Still, that doesn’t mean that solar panels have zero environmental impact. One big question that people have is: what happens to solar panels at the end of their life?
Solar panels have a really long expected lifespan: many come with 25 year product warranties. But panels do sometimes break or the owner of a solar array will retire panels early to upgrade to newer technology. Even if solar panels owners keep them operating for a couple decades, that means in 20 years now, we may have a massive waste problem to the tune of billions of solar panels. What’s the environmental impact of that, and what are the options?
Solar panel waste: a looming problem
Solar panel installations in the US really only started to explode around 2010. This means that the majority of solar panels that are currently in operation are newer than 10 years old - less than halfway through their life expectancy.
For this reason, solar panel recycling hasn’t been a major focus of the industry just yet. Even so, the current global waste stream of broken solar panels might add up to a few hundred thousand metric tons annually. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, by the early 2030s solar panels are expected to be a major waste stream and reach into the millions of metric tons by the 2050s.
Without recycling, these solar panels will end up in landfills. The majority of solar panels installed are crystalline silicon and do not contain any toxic metals, with the possible exception of a small amount of lead used to join wires. A smaller number of installed panels use thin-film technology, which may contain less desirable elements such as cadmium.
Landfilling is the cheaper option and will often be the default choice for disposal, unless government regulations are enacted. The European Union is ahead of the US in this area, which currently has no national laws in place that address solar panel waste. In the EU, solar PV manufacturers are responsible for the disposal and recycling of panels sold within the EU.
How does solar panel recycling work?
A conventional solar panel consists of silicon solar cells surrounded by a sandwich of acetate, plastic, wiring, and glass held together in an aluminium frame. Recycling one of these panels involves breaking down the product and separating the materials into discreet streams. By weight, the average solar panel will contain about 76% glass, 10% polymers (encapsulant and backsheet), 8% aluminium (the frame), 5% silicon (solar cells), 1% copper and less than 0.1% silver and other metals (such as tin and lead).
While all of these materials are currently recyclable, the challenge with solar panels is how to make the entire lifecycle, from collection of the broken panels to the recovery and reuse of the recyclable materials. As is the case with household recycling, which has been around for decades, it’s difficult to make the crade-to-grave process economical in comparison to simply dumping the waste into a landfill.
Solar panel recycling in the European Union
In the EU, solar panel recycling is now mandatory for manufacturers. One company, PV CYCLE, offers recycling for a variety of electronic equipment, including PV modules, batteries, packaging, and industrial waste. This short video shows the process in action:
Currently, PV CYCLE has operations in the EU and Japan, but is in the process of expanding to the USA.
Solar panel recycling in the United States
Currently, the only US-based solar manufacturer with a recycling program is First Solar. Based in Arizona, First Solar differs from other manufacturers because they produce thin-film solar panels based on cadmium-telluride. (You won’t find these panels on your home’s rooftop because they focus on the commercial and utility market.)
First Solar operates recycling facilities in the US, Germany, and Malaysia, and claim that they are able to recover more than 90% of the materials in a panel.
SunPower, a manufacturer of very high efficiency solar panels for the residential market, makes a point of their Cradle to Cradle Bronze certification, but the Bronze level only indicates that the product has been manufactured with renewable energy. Waste recycling is not included at the Bronze level.
Silicon solar panel recycling facilities in the US
We Recycle Solar is an Arizona-based recycling company with facilites around the world. Currently, they have the capacity to recycle 100,000 pounds of material every day.
There are other companies too, such as Nevada-based Recycle PV Solar. Smaller operations include Green Century Recycling in Oregon, Cleanlite Recycling in Ohio, and Dynamic Lifecycle Innovations in Wisconsin.
Bottom line: solar panel recycling is a growing but solvable problem
As the planet installs countless square miles of solar panels to generate green electricity, we have to remember that all those panels will eventually turn into countless square miles of garbage. While solar energy is still relatively young, we’ve been able to mostly ignore the problem, but that won’t last much longer.
Fortunately, the problem is solvable, and nations and companies are already working on the problem. Here in the US, the Solar Energy Industry Association has a national PV recycling program that is starting to address the problem. The EU is further along and has larger companies such as PV CYCLE that currently have the capacity to handle large amounts of waste.
To learn more about solar panel recycling than you probably want to know, check out this 100 page report by the International Renewable Energy Agency.