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. Solar panel recycling is still at an early stage, but as the solar market continues to expand, recycling processes will have an increasingly important role to play.
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.
Solar panel recycling is important for the future of solar
Solar energy is inexpensive and environmentally friendly – but it’s important to note that after about 30 years, many crystalline silicon solar panels will start seeing significant dips in energy production, and it may be time to replace them or dispose of them entirely. More and more panels will reach the end of their life each year (some experts think we’ll have 80 million tons of solar panel waste by 2050), and even now, old solar panels are beginning to become a problem as the majority of them end up in landfills where they can release toxins harmful to both 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 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 (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 repurposes rare, expensive elements
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. 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
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, some specialty recycling companies are able to reuse silicon cells by melting them down and reclaiming the silicon and various metals within.
Technically speaking, all materials in solar panels can be recycled 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 recycling them each in a unique way is a complex and expensive process.
How are solar panels recycled?
There are actually three main ways solar panels can currently be recycled: through re-use, mechanical recycling, or chemical recycling. Each of these methods has its own 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 solar panels because of how little processing products require. However, solar panels that are past their warrantied lifetime usually produce significantly less energy than when they were new, which renders 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.
One of the two true “recycling” methods for solar panels, mechanical recycling is the category of recycling processes that involve physically breaking down solar panels into their components. On the more rudimentary end, a mechanical recycling process might remove the aluminum framing from a panel and then grind the remaining glass, silicon, wiring, and various metals into a mixture known as “glass cullet”, which 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 out, such as the intra-cell wiring and silicon itself.
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 out different components, chemical recycling uses reactions at a molecular level to separate out 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 recycling in the United States vs. Europe
Solar panel recycling as a practice is still in its infancy, however, across the ocean in Europe, solar recycling 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 place 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 regulations exist, and only a few state and local recycling policies exist. Combine that with the fact that solar recycling is nowhere near cost-effective here, and you end up with the low panel recycling rates seen in the U.S., especially when just dumping panels in a landfill remains so cheap (and legal).
Companies that recycle solar panels
So, who in the U.S. is working on solar recycling? In lieu of manufacturers being required to handle their own product recycling, there are several private companies working on their own practices and technologies. Here are a few to be aware of:
We Recycle Solar
We Recycle Solar works directly with manufacturers and installers to dispose properly of their solar panel waste. 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.
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.
Where can you recycle your old solar panels?
Unfortunately, most of the up and coming recycling programs in the U.S. are not aimed towards individual homeowners. As such, 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 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 Marketplace to receive free quotes from our network of qualified, pre-vetted installers so you can start the process of going solar.