Solar panels have a lifetime of about 30 years. With the increasing number of solar panels being sold and installed in the United States each year, it’s only a matter of time before high volumes of silicon solar panels are at the end of their useful life and have to be disposed of. Solar panel recycling is still at a very early stage, but as the market continues to grow, it will have an important part to play in the solar industry.
Solar panel recycling is important for the future of solar
Solar energy is inexpensive and environmentally friendly – until your solar panels have reached the end of their lifetime. After about 30 years, many crystalline silicon solar panels will start having significant dips in energy production and it may be time to replace them or dispose of them entirely.
Like any manufactured product, disposing of solar panels is hardly environmentally friendly. Heavy metals like cadmium and lead are found in solar cells, which can harm the natural environment if they are not recycled or disposed of properly. Additionally, solar panels that are carelessly thrown away can end up in large landfills.
Besides environmental protection, recycling solar panels will be economically impactful as well. Some of the rare elements in photovoltaic (PV) cells like gallium and indium are being depleted from the environment over time. If we were able to recover those elements, we can conserve the limited amount available on earth and continue to use them for solar panels and other products. Furthermore, a 2016 study by the International Renewable Agency (IRENA) estimated that $15 billion could be recovered from recycling solar modules by the year 2050.
When do solar panels need to be recycled?
With a lifetime of about 30 years on average, crystalline silicon solar panels don’t become obsolete very quickly. However, given the rapid expansion of the solar industry, the number of solar panels needing to be recycled or disposed of in the coming years will continue to increase. More and more panels will reach the end of their life each year, and even now, old solar panels are beginning to become a problem.
What parts of solar panels can be recycled?
Recycling solar panels can only be effective if the materials used to build them are able to be used again, 30 or more years later. Solar panels are made from several components, including:
- Silicon solar cells
- Metal framing
- Glass sheets
Right away, it’s clear that many of the core components of solar panels can be recycled on their own. Metal, glass, and wiring can all be recycled and reused. Silicon cells, the component that is most essential to producing electricity, are a slightly different story. While silicon wafers are not recyclable like glass and plastic are, some specialty recycling companies are able to reuse silicon cells by melting them down and reclaiming the silicon and various metals.
The difficulty with recycling solar panels isn’t that the materials they are made from are hard to recycle; rather, it’s that they are constructed from many parts all used together in one product. Separating those materials and recycling them each in a unique way is a complex and potentially expensive process.
Solar panel recycling options
What are the current options for recycling your old solar panels? Solar panels have traditionally been recycled at general purpose glass recycling facilities, where the metal frames and glass parts are salvaged but the remaining parts are disposed of or burned. Nowadays, there are a few organizations working to make solar panel recycling both complete and mainstream:
Unlike the U.S., Europe has a developed solar market. Due to government regulations, European solar panel owners must recycle their panels once they are done using them. This has created a market for panel recyclers, one of which is Veolia.
Veolia partners with the non-profit PV Cycle in Europe to collect and recycle solar panels. They opened their first recycling plant in 2018, where robots separate glass, silicon, plastics, and metals from solar panels.
One company looking to bring solar recycling to the U.S. is Recycle PV. Because of the lack of governmental solar recycling requirements, the company has trouble operating on a wide scale locally. Despite this, Recycle PV is partnering with PV Cycle to help move U.S. panels to recycling facilities in Europe. While currently only a small operation compared to some European panel recycling efforts, groups like Recycle PV will almost definitely see the demand for their recycling services grow over the next several years.
Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA)
SEIA has a PV Recycling Working Group that chooses recycling partners offering benefits to SEIA members. These partners give special pricing to the SEIA members, and in exchange, recycle their solar panels at special facilities. An example of a SEIA recycling partner is the company Cleanlites. Cleanlites operates recycling facilities that aren’t dedicated only to solar but can handle recycling panels and other solar equipment.
Another example of solar recycling efforts comes from manufacturers. Companies like SunPower and First Solar run global recycling programs for their customers, allowing them to return old solar panels (often through groups like PV Cycle) to the manufacturer to be recycled or repurposed.
Solar panels are good for the environment, and recycling is coming
While solar panel recycling isn’t widely available in the U.S. for all of the components in solar panels, there’s still a little time before the number of panels needing to be recycled gets too high. Groups like SEIA and Recycle PV are doing important groundwork for the industry, but there’s more to do in years to come.
Solar panel recycling may not be widespread, but solar energy is still a great financial investment that is environmentally friendly as well. By going solar now, you can cut your electric bill and start saving right away. Sign up for the EnergySage Solar Marketplace to receive free quotes from our network of qualified, pre-vetted installers so you can start the process of going solar.