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Solar Panel Recycling | Life After Death Considerations

July 30, 2020
By John Cole

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The booming solar industry is set to make a splash in landfills worldwide without some necessary foresight and adjustments. Solar panels have a 30 year shelf-life. Thankfully, solar panel recycling is a growing and viable option to consider to give your solar array a life after death.

Is Solar Panel Recycling Possible?

An estimated 90% of all decommissioned U.S. panels end up in a landfill. Thankfully, this is changing. Although relatively unknown, solar panel recycling is a growing subsidiary of the solar industry. With just a little effort, you can recycle your decommissioned or damaged solar panels.

Solar panel recycling is not as easy as contacting your county’s waste management office. The process is complicated and often high cost. But that doesn’t mean that it’s out of reach. Most solar consumers are concerned about their impact upon the environment. We will break down the process and point you in the right direction to ensure that your hard-working panels don’t sit in a landfill to decompose over the next few thousand years or more.

The Need for Solar Panel Recycling

The growth of the solar industry is staggering. And it makes sense. Once the solar panels are constructed and installed, they offer cheap, convenient, and near zero maintenance energy that can be used in residential, commercial, or even traveling on the road.

Solar farms are popping up across the country that house thousands of panels. At the time of writing, the Green New Deal remains an ever-present discussion in Washington while a democratic task force led by Bernie Sanders plans on installing 500 million solar modules in the next five years alone. On the other hand, solar energy can reduce dependency on foreign oil while boosting American manufacturing if consumers choose American panels.

All of this means that by the end of the decade, there will be trillions of panels providing sun-grown energy across the country. And if current trends continue, by 2050, there will be trillions of solar panels in landfills. Thankfully, there’s plenty of time to course correct.

End of Life

Before we discuss where to put a dead solar panel, let’s first define what “end of life” means for solar technology. There are three ways a panel will meet its maker, so to speak.

1) Natural Degradation – Currently technology indicates that every year of use degrades the voltage output of a panel by a fraction of a percent. While this little dip in production is insignificant the first few years, these little decreases will add up to a substantial amount. Solar industry standards define end-of-life as a drop to 80% in voltage output. This happens naturally between 25-30 years. It’s still possible to use an array after this point, but the production will continue to decline.

2) Detrimental Weather – Solar panels are always subject to the weather. Tornadoes, hailstorms, lightning strikes, windstorms, floods, earthquakes, or even the occasional falling tree can put a panel offline and into the trash.

3) Outdated technology – The sad reality is that as solar technology increases in efficiency, solar panels will begin to appear outdated. For example, a panel in the 1960’s had an approximate efficiency of 6%. This means that 6% of the sunlight is processed into usable energy. Today’s panels are 35% efficient. As this number grows higher, solar owners may choose to replace their solar panels before the panels themselves reach their “end of life.”

Consequences of Landfills

For many solar panel owners, the only known option for a damaged or “dead” solar panel is to throw them away. However, given the explosion of solar technology, this will become problematic. It is estimated that at current trends, there will be 60 million tons of solar panels sitting in landfills by 2050. For those that don’t really like math, that’s 120,000,000,000 pounds of solar panel matter. While there is currently some debate about the safety of placing solar in the trash, solar panels are, in part, made of toxic chemicals for the adhesives, the anti-reflective coatings, and traces of heavy metals such as lead and tin. A few panels in the trash might not make a big difference. But millions of tons will.

What is Recoverable?

When we consider recycling solar panels, we need to factor in what is and is not recoverable from a panel. This requires a bit of knowledge about what solar panels are made from. There are two main types of solar panels, silicon and thin-film. These two types are constructed from different ratios of raw materials, such as glass, plastic and aluminum. Some of the materials are recyclable, while others are not. Furthermore, the decommissioning process is different for these two types. To discover what is actually recoverable, we must look at the recycling process for each.

Silicon-Based Recycling

The recycling process begins by disassembling the product and isolating the glass cover – 95% of which is recyclable. Once the glass is removed, the external frame, usually aluminum, can be melted and reformed into other products. Depending on the manufacturer and the recycler, external junction boxes may be removed. The remainder of the panels are then processed at approximately 500 degrees Celsius. This eases the binding between the cells which makes the refining process easier. The silicon particles – or wafers -  are then etched away, broken, melted, and purified, which nets up to 85% recycling rate for silicon.

Thin-Based Recycling

If thin-based panels have a frame, they are first dismantled. Though one of the perks of using thin-based solar in the first place is more flexible mounting options. Once the panels are isolated, they are put through a shredder and cut down to 4-5mm pieces. This allows the lamination to release the solar contents inside – a combination of both solid and liquid material. The solid and liquid materials are separated.

The liquid is purified through a dewatering process, then further processed to remove any semiconductor material used during the original manufacturing process. On average, this results in 95% material recovery.

The solid matter is highly contaminated, but can be separated through a vibration process, and then rinsed. While the waste is disposed of, the resulting recycling material is glass, which is easy to recycle. The process results in about 90% recovery of the glass particles.

Silicon Uses

For the most part, silicon can be refined and sent through the photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing process all over again. Another suspected use is to turn PV grade silicon into battery-grade silicon for electric vehicles. With so much recovered silicon hitting the market in the coming years, be on the lookout for new technologies and varied uses for this precious mineral.

Complications to Recycling

While there are several legitimate complications to solar panel recycling, three stand out the most.

1. While the cost of solar has dropped dramatically in recent years, the cost of recycling has not. Due to the complicated process and high amount of energy needed to separate and purify the elements at high heat, the value of the retrieved materials sometimes exceeds that of brand new materials. It sometimes costs more to recycle them than to build new.

2. Supply and demand is also a legitimate factor. As recycling becomes the norm, a flood of recovered will hit the market which has the potential of decreasing the value of recycled products overall.

3. Another realistic limitation is the lack of knowledge and access to recycling programs. Like all e-waste, proper disposal takes intentionality and forethought. It’s not as simple as calling your county’s waste management office. Few places can handle the technology as well as the volume that will be expected over the coming years.

4. Ease of recycling is a large factor for the American culture at large. While many people will go to the extra effort of picking up a plastic water bottle from the ground and walking it to a recycling bin, many people won’t. This problem is amplified when it involves researching companies, sometimes international ones, and factoring all the steps it would take to get used panels to a recycling company. Human habit is a difficult hurdle to overcome. But with more education, exposure, and options, we can overcome.

Recycling Options

All that being said, there are a number of growing companies that specialize in this much needed service. Expect plenty more to pop up over the next 10 years.

  • First Solar – They alone have the ability to recover up to 90% of materials from cadmium telluride thin-film modules.
  • SunPower – A large manufacturer that has recycling programs worldwide.
  • Recycle PV – A partnership with the non-profit PV Cycle, this Belgium-based company launched its U.S. service in 2018 after learning that 90% of decommissioned panels were being placed in landfills.
  • We Recycle Solar – A growing company based out of Phoenix, AZ.

International Markets

European Union – Although behind the US in solar usage, Europe is ahead of the game in terms of managing the waste. Since 2012, the EU has mandated the setup and financing of take-back and recycling processes under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive of 2012. This, in effect, requires the producers of the panels to manage the waste. While this concept is effective at managing the waste, it increases the cost of implementation, which puts some consumers fiscally out of reach from this technology.

China – China is quickly becoming the largest consumer of solar technology. By 2050, China will have outpaced the United States and will have the most end-of-life solar panels in the world. Like the U.S., waste of solar panels is completely unregulated and mismanaged. It is still unknown how they will handle this looming issue.

Australia – Another big solar consumer, they also have few options and little regulation. However, the Australian PV industry is currently working closely with the Victoria state to create a national management approach. To combat the high-cost of the refining process, they are looking to create alternative methods that don’t require burning the used materials at 500 degrees Celsius.

Other Options for Your Solar Panels

“End of life” doesn’t always mean “end of life.” While it’s estimated that solar panels will only last 30 years, there are some other factors to consider.

1) End of life is considered a 20% drop in production. But if your panels are still producing 80%, they will still continue to produce free energy for several years. Consider selling the panels second-hand instead of recycling. There would be plenty of people who would be thrilled to purchase a functional rig even if it’s not pristine.

2) Solar panels degrade at different rates. There is a chance that after 30 years, your solar panels might still be producing well over 80%. Make sure to measure the actual output of your panels before you decide to decommission.

3) Consider using your panels after the 80% rule. Just because they dropped in output doesn’t mean they have to be replaced. If they’re still working, then perhaps you can keep them in use. Regardless, just calculate the wattage you would receive with new panels and weigh the cost of installing new to determine if that boost in energy is truly worth it.

One thing is for certain, resorting to landfills is an unsustainable solution for sustainable energy. The solution, however, is far from simple. Europe’s mandated approach increases cost of solar technology while American’s lack of approach puts the impetus on concerted individuals to design, market, and implement recycling solutions for one of the largest countries in the world. A hybrid approach that works with solar manufacturers to ensure the viability of both the recycling technologies and the industry’s profits must be considered. These solutions will take decades to finesse. Thankfully, there is still plenty of time to course correct and prepare for the future to ensure that sustainable energy will be around for future generations.

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