Can Solar Panels Be Recycled?
Updated: May 18, 2022
There is now enough installed photovoltaic solar capacity in the United States to power 18.9 million households, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Although the benefits of solar power in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting air quality are undeniable, there is an impending e-waste issue on the horizon.
What will happen to the millions and millions of solar panels once they reach the end of their life? This is a question that many solar shoppers ask, so solar installation companies need to know how to respond.
Solar PV modules are designed to last about 25 – 30 years, and over time, they become less efficient in producing electricity. Once solar panels are not efficient enough in generating clean energy, they need to be replaced. Because most solar panels were installed in the last decade in the United States, that means there will be a lot of solar systems decommissioned in the next couple of decades.
Currently, only a tiny fraction of solar panels are recycled due to the expense of taking them apart and the lack of recycling infrastructure in the United States, so most end up in landfills. The lack of federal policies requiring solar module recycling, infrastructure for processing them, and foresight in solar panel design makes them expensive and difficult to recycle.
Does the solar industry have a plan to remedy this and prepare for the future? Although there has been some progress in Europe, there isn’t a cohesive industry plan yet in the United States, but one will need to be in place in the next decade or so.
What Makes A Solar Panel?
It is helpful to understand the components of a solar PV panel to gain insights into how to recycle them and why it is challenging. Silicon-based solar modules contain glass, aluminum frames, copper wire, polymer layers, and of course, silicon cells. They can also have a little silver and internal copper, which is difficult to collect because they are in small amounts. In addition, they contain trace toxic compounds, such as lead. Thin-film solar also contains cadmium telluride (CdTe), which is carcinogenic and toxic.
Why Solar Panel Recycling Is Important
Sadly, when solar panels are not properly disposed of, they can leach compounds into groundwater, contaminating it. Also, if tons of solar panels are going to the landfill, lots of raw materials are being wasted. Therefore, proper handling and recycling are vital to ensure that solar PV truly produces clean and sustainable energy. To address this, the entire lifecycle of the solar panels needs to be examined, from design through disposal.
Is Recycling Solar Panels Cost-Effective?
If solar panels contain valuable materials, wouldn’t it be financially worthwhile to recycle them? Unfortunately, solar panel recycling is difficult and often involves thermal, chemical, and mechanical processes, which drives up costs. Also, some of the recycled materials have little financial value due to low market demand.
Unfortunately, this makes recycling less appealing for the processors because their costs are pretty high to transport and process the panels and the potential profit from salvaged materials is minimal. Hopefully, this will change as the solar market evolves.
How To Recycle Solar Panels
To begin, PV panel recyclers disassemble modules, removing the glass and metals in the frames and junction boxes. These items are more readily recyclable, and many recycling facilities are equipped to handle them. However, polymer layers seal the solar panels to keep the elements out. As a result, processors need to use high temperatures or chemical processes to loosen the adhesive, making this step both energy and labor-intensive, which drives up recycling costs.
Then, the remaining material is downcycled into low-value goods because the material is not very valuable. Although it might contain small amounts of metals, these are difficult to extract. The recovery rates in solar module recycling are typically around 85%, but the demand for much of the recycled material is low.
Unfortunately, weak demand means the price for the materials is also low. In addition, most states don’t mandate solar panel recycling so legal compliance is not a motivation. Thus, there is little incentive to recycle solar panels aside from the environmental benefits.
What States Mandate Solar Panel Recycling?
Currently, no federal policies require solar panel recycling in the United States. However, California treats solar panels as hazardous waste to hopefully keep panels out of landfills and encourage recycling. In addition, Washington has a law that puts the responsibility on the module manufacturers, and other states may follow.
The Washington Photovoltaic (PV) Module Stewardship and Takeback Program, passed in 2017, requires PV manufacturers to finance the collection and recycling of panels at no cost to system owners. Also, the manufacturers must meet certain recycling standards. Likewise, in the European Union, there are laws requiring manufacturers to collect and recycle old solar panels and to fund research into end-of-life solutions.
Companies That Recycle Solar Panels
Unfortunately, the United States lags behind the European Union in solar panel recycling and dedicated infrastructure. For example, the French waste management company, Veolia, opened the first recycling line dedicated to PV panels. By contrast, United States processors are typically dedicated to processing e-waste, not specifically solar panels.
But, it is helpful to know about the solar recycling options in the United States, in case your customers want specific information. The SEIA created the National PV Recycling Program with designated Preferred Recycling Partners that meet its standards and criteria. This is an excellent place to start, and the program is likely to expand with time. Currently, Cascade Eco-Minerals, Echo Environmental, ERI, and Green Century Recycling are SEIA’s preferred recycling partners. In addition, two solar manufacturers, First Solar and SunPower, lead the way in solar panel recycling.
Cascade Eco Minerals
Cascade’s zero-landfill commitment is very impressive, and this sets it apart from other recycling companies. Also, Cascade Eco Minerals has been recycling glass for 90 years, and it uses partners to process some of the materials in solar panels. It has seven solar recycling plants in the United States, and it sometimes sends PV panels to refurbishing providers when possible.
This electronics recycling company is based in Carrollton, Texas, and processes its materials domestically. It can handle anything from scrap metal to products containing precious metals, including solar panels, inverters, and charge controllers. This makes them a one-stop shop for recycling used solar equipment.
First Solar has recycling facilities in the United States, Germany, and Malaysia, and recovery rates up to 90%. According to its website, it can reuse up to 90% of semiconductor material for new modules, completing the recycling loop.
SunPower has both a recycling collection program for its products and uses recycling partners to process the materials. Its Maxeon DC, E-Series, X-Series, and A-Series modules have all earned the Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Bronze status. This designation is for “safer, more sustainable products made for the circular economy.”
The Solar Panel Recycling Sector Will Continue To Innovate
In addition to increasing the United States recycling infrastructure, there are many ways to reduce the cost of recycling while improving the recovery rate or value of the recycled materials. For example, refurbishing broken or damaged solar panels instead of recycling them is better for the environment, so it would be wise to put more emphasis on this practice.
Likewise, there are many actions that manufacturers can take, especially in the design phase, to green the industry and make their products more readily recyclable. Extended producer responsibility laws in the European Union and Washington will help encourage these actions because it takes the burden of disposing of solar panels off local governments and puts it on the PV manufacturers themselves.
For example, designing solar panels with a longer useful life, reduces and delays the need to recycle them. Increasing the efficiency of the panels themselves enables fewer solar panels to produce the same amount of energy. Also, using fewer materials, especially toxic ones, will help streamline the recycling process. And, making it easier to take solar panels apart reduces the labor, chemicals, and energy needed to process panels.
The renewable energy industry has demonstrated a strong ability to innovate and advance. Manufacturers that are more effective in addressing recyclability issues can stand out as leaders in sustainability.
Read more about the solar industry, up-and-coming technology and more on the GreenLancer Blog.