solar panel recycling

Solar panel recycling: what you need to know

Solar power is one of the fastest-growing clean energy sources, but what happens to old panels? Solar panels have a lifetime of about 30 years. With the increasing number of solar panels being sold and installed in the U.S. each year, it’s only a matter of time before high volumes of panels are at the end of their useful life and have to be disposed of. Solar panel recycling is still at an early stage, but as the renewable energy market continues to expand, recycling processes will play an increasingly important role.


Key takeaways about solar panel recycling


  • As panels reach the end of their usable lifetime, panel waste will continue to pile up.
  • There are three broad types of solar panel recycling: re-use, mechanical, and chemical/thermal.
  • Solar recycling is far more advanced in Europe when compared to the U.S. – this is primarily due to policy structures in place overseas that require manufacturers to recycle their panels.
  • To start your solar journey today, visit the EnergySage Marketplace.

What’s in this article?

Solar panel recycling is important for the future of solar

Solar energy is inexpensive, fossil fuel and emission-free, and boosts sustainability efforts. But, it’s important to note that after about 30 years, many crystalline silicon solar panels will start seeing significant dips in energy production. So, it may be time to replace or dispose of them entirely. More and more panels will reach the end of life each year (some experts think we’ll have 80 million metric tons of solar panel waste by 2050). Even now, old panels are beginning to become a problem as most of them end up in landfills where they can release toxins harmful to the environment and human health.

Recycling solar panels is good for the environment 

Like any manufactured product, disposing of solar panels is hardly environmentally friendly. Heavy metals in solar cells, like cadmium and lead, can become hazardous waste if not recycled or disposed of properly. Additionally, solar panels that are carelessly thrown away can end up in large landfills (as most of them do currently due to the solar panel recycling process’ infancy). By recycling solar panels, we can keep harmful materials out of landfills and out of the environment.

Recycling solar panels repurpose rare, expensive elements

Besides environmental protection, recycling solar panels will be economically impactful as well. Some rare elements in photovoltaic (PV) cells, like gallium and indium, are being depleted from the environment over time. If we could recover these valuable materials, we can conserve the limited amount available on earth and continue to use them for photovoltaic panels and other products. Furthermore, a 2016 study by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimated that $15 billion could be recovered from recycling solar modules by the year 2050. By recycling solar panels, we can conserve important materials that can go back into new panel products, alleviating supply chain constraints and ultimately lowering the cost of solar.

What parts of solar panels can be recycled?

Solar panels are made from several components, including:

  • Silicon solar cells
  • Metal framing
  • Glass sheets
  • Wires
  • Plexiglas

Right away, it’s clear that many of the core components of PV panels can be recycled on their own. Metal, glass, and copper wiring can all be recycled and reused. Silicon cells, the component most essential to producing electricity, are a slightly different story. While silicon wafers are not recyclable like glass and plastic, some specialty recycling companies can reuse silicon cells by melting them down and reclaiming the silicon and various metals within. 

Technically, all solar panel parts are recyclable materials with the correct process.

What makes solar panel recycling hard?


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 uniquely recycling them is a complex and expensive process. Additionally, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that recycling costs $28 per module, whereas landfilling costs $1.38 per module. With these significantly higher recycling costs, most PV panels end up in landfills today.

How do you recycle solar panels?

There are three main ways to recycle solar panels: re-use, mechanical recycling, and chemical recycling. Each of these methods has its advantages and disadvantages, and all likely will still have a place in the solar recycling industry as it grows.

Re-using or refurbishing solar panels

Throughout this article, we’re referring to “recycling” as breaking down solar panels into their component materials and then using those recovered materials elsewhere, including in other solar products. However, there’s also the concept of “reusing” solar panels, which is a different type of solution for the solar waste problem. 

Re-use is an enticing recycling method for PV modules because of how little processing products require. However, solar panels past their warrantied life cycle usually produce significantly less energy than when they were new, rendering them highly unusable for solar power generation. There’s still a place for used solar panels, but it’s not a long-term or permanent solution for the coming solar panel waste problem.

Re-using solar panels makes sense for small off-grid applications, where producing electricity super efficiently with the latest solar technology isn’t essential. It’s also applicable for small, specific solar chargers, like keeping electronic signs on the highway powered or charging an e-bike station. Otherwise, used or refurbished panels just don’t produce enough electricity to be useful as parts of larger solar arrays.

Mechanical recycling

One of the two true “recycling” methods for solar panels, mechanical recycling, is the recycling process that involves physically breaking down solar panels into their components. On the rudimentary end, a mechanical recycling process might remove the aluminum framing from a panel. Then, the remaining glass, silicon, wiring, and various metals are ground into a mixture known as “glass cullet.” Glass cullet is sometimes used as a building material.

Some companies also use mechanical methods to get more out of panels than just the aluminum frame. It takes more time and precision, but we can use machines to physically separate the smaller parts of solar panels, such as the intra-cell wiring and silicon itself.

Chemical/thermal recycling

Perhaps the most exciting segment of solar recycling is chemical (or thermal) recycling. While mechanical recycling is limited by how well a process can physically separate different components, chemical recycling uses reactions at a molecular level to separate the ingredients in a solar panel. For example, the company ROSI Solar, a French startup, uses a chemical process to extract the tiny silver wires that carry electricity through silicon cells in a working solar panel.

Solar waste management in the United States vs. Europe

Solar panel recycling as a practice is still in its infancy; however, across the ocean in Europe, it is a much more established part of the solar industry.

The key difference between U.S. and European solar recycling is the lack of policy guardrails in the states. In Europe, solar panel manufacturers are required to handle the recycling of their panels once they’ve reached the end of their usable lifespan. In the U.S., no such federal regulations exist. However, some states have enacted laws to regulate solar end-of-life management for solar panels. California, for example, has Universal Waste Management Regulations. We still see low panel recycling rates in U.S. solar recycling due to higher costs, technical complexity, and lack of policy around solar panel disposal.

Companies that recycle solar panels

So, who in the U.S. is working on solar recycling? In place of manufacturers being required to handle their product recycling, several private companies are working on their practices and technologies. Here are a few to be aware of:

EnergyBin

EnergyBin connects businesses within the solar industry to provide solutions for the repair, resale, and recycling of solar panels. Effectively acting as the “middle man,” EnergyBin aims to facilitate quick and easy exchanges in the “secondary market” across the solar supply chain.

We Recycle Solar

We Recycle Solar works directly with manufacturers and installers to dispose of their solar panel waste properly. They have two processing plants in the U.S. in New York and Arizona, alongside several other international locations. Process-wise, We Recycle Solar uses a combination of mechanical and chemical methods to extract as many of the raw resources from their panels as possible.

Veolia 

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.

Where can you recycle your old solar panels?


Unfortunately, most up-and-coming recycling programs in the U.S. are not aimed at individual homeowners. So, if you’re trying to recycle your solar panels, it’s probably best to contact your solar installer. In some cases, contacting the manufacturer of your panels can also help. While you individually can’t recycle panels, there’s a decent chance that your installer has a relationship with one of the companies we mentioned above.

Explore your solar options on EnergySage

Solar panel recycling may not be widespread yet, but solar energy is still an environmentally friendly financial investment. You can cut your electric bill by going solar. Sign up for the EnergySage Marketplace to receive free quotes from our network of qualified, pre-vetted installers so you can start the process of going solar.

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This article was originally published on September 15, 2021, and has been updated.

23 thoughts on “Solar panel recycling: what you need to know

  1. Izz

    How many times actually we can recycle the solar panels? Is the recycled one cost less? Does using the recycled one affect its energy absorption efficiency?

    Reply
  2. Arthur Hernandez

    I am working on a project that wouldn’t need panels to collect electricity which would eliminate the need for recycling both panels and all the used batteries. Thei came up with the idea back in the early 90’s and found out Technology hasn’t caught up with my system.
    But now it has. Looking for investor who thing outside the box. Also certain types of technicians to assemble it.
    Arthur Hernandez

    Reply
  3. James

    I am from Texas, wind turbine generators are being installed throughout the southwest and central Texas. As a young man, I would drive from San Antonio to El Paso, El Paso to Dallas, Dallas to San Antonio and would see all the beautiful open areas of our State of Texas. NOT NO MORE! Wind Turbines are throughout this land scape and PV arrays being installed to help protect the so call environment. Actually, they have destroyed our Great State. Yet, I see all these individuals talk about the environment and have no idea of what has happen to the destruction of the environment and the killing of animals habitats. Still these same individuals continues to insult Nuclear Generation which is a thousand times more environmentally safe than any wind turbine or PV Solar panel. I have worked in Nuclear Plants and due to all the governmental regulations is it probably one of the best and safe ways of producing electric energy. Let’s talk about the environment and actually do something to protect it. Texas is no longer an open area of miles and miles of open scenery. END OF STORY!

    Reply
    1. Dave Carroll

      *Can’t see for miles and miles unobstructed while driving on an interstate highway at 70mph*

      “THE STATE IS DESTROYED”

      Look, I agree we need to take Nuclear seriously, but I can’t take you seriously when you are literally just sad about a view that’s not so pretty. Things change. Did you complain when they put in all the exurban big box stores? When Walmart destroyed a lovely cow pasture? I hope so.

      Reply
    2. David Foley

      Couldn’t agree more. I live in a small western Maine town of just over 1100 people. This town has incredibly majestic views, cleanest lakes in the country and a desirable “ole timey” feel. It’s, “The Vacation State”. With incentives, grants and lessened EPA rules, solar companies are crashing through small towns, ramming projects down our throats. None of these small towns have adopted protections or restrictions protecting their communities from this assault.
      Our town has one spectacular view of the entire Mt. Washington mountain range. It stops drivers flat. Families get out of their cars and marvel at what they’re observing. Road races and many other homeowners maintain their properties so everyone can enjoy and benefit from it.
      Now comes Walden Solar…unknown to every affected homeowner, they have quietly (for over a year) leased nearly 200 acres directly in this natural treasure and has plans to clear cut the pines oaks, poplar and everything in the way of 170, 000…one hundred and seventy thousand panels.
      There is nothing passive or green about clear cutting and destroying what mother nature has offered and left for us. We are the stewards of this land and have a responsibility to protect it and stop the irresponsible business practices of these aggressive bullies. Btw. This Co. Intends to sell the project as soon as its installed. It’s business, $$$, NOT about saving our planet. Stop this big lie.
      We have a gofund me site for Lovel Maine to fight against Walen solar in Lovell. If anyone would like to help fight this destruction, please give a little. Ty
      Homeowner David— my home faces the hill directly involved

      Reply
  4. Drump Lee

    This is the problem that people who are and will use solar panels are wondering. Thanks to the author for answering these questions

    Reply
  5. Colin Green

    Dear David Munoz, NOT true that seldom have we ever paid the true price of anything we consume, we do one way or another. BUT, very few products are aggressively SUBSIDISED like solar panels. Peoples taxes are paying for an industry to produce a product which is at the moment NOT recyclable without an extra cost to, guessed it, the tax payer. A simple online search will show the extent of the CONFLICTS OF INTEREST in the business, and academic world in regards to the promotion and advocacy of solar panels etc. There are many government departments who’s livelihood depends on government commitment to solar etc. What are they going to tell you ?????? Meanwhile, while you are saving the planet with solar panels, the worlds population has grown by 80,000,000 people per year, all of which will add to the demand you are so keen to reduce. Do you see a problem here????

    Reply
  6. Caroll Marston

    From what I’ve read in the past, the true costs of nuclear power plants has never been published, including the future costs if/when the spent material buried in the earth begins to leech out because of deterioration, seismic activity or a combination of both.

    Usually the known need sparks the interest in a project and the market begins to fund the research when it begins to see a profit somewhere. Let’s not panic yet and go back to cutting down trees to burn in our wood stoves because we don’t see the recycling efforts scaling up…..

    Reply
    1. Robert Alexander

      I respectfully disagree… why make the same kind of mistakes as have been made in the past with fossil fuels and nuclear? Right now, the blades off of wind turbines are being buried instead of recycled, as are the lithium and cobalt from LIB (EV) batteries. Solar panels which are no longer serviceable are simply stacking up instead of being recycled. All of this because “it is not economically profitable” to deal with these waste products. Wind, solar and green energy should actually be held to a HIGHER standard than their predecessors have been held to in the past. What is needed is legislation which holds those who produce these products to strict compliance to a completely “circular” supply chain. Which means if you build it, you are legally responsible for recycling it or taking it out of commission when it has reached it’s end of service. We need federal and state legislation dealing with this in all states and countries RIGHT NOW…. Green Energy’s toxic waste in not any “holier” than fossil fuel’s toxic waste… Deal with it!!!

      Reply
  7. Richard Schuman

    A toxic environmental catastrophe in the making. Recycling only happens when good money can be made from the outcome with minimal expense and effort. That black goo that is the heart of PV panels will never be of any practical use. It will be stockpiled like nuclear waste if it is from commercial facilities and they have been diligent to budget for this. Otherwise, it will end up in landfills and back road ditches where it will leech into the soil. The only practical solution is in prevention.

    Reply

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