Renewable Energy's Afterlife: Exploring Solar Panel Recycling

Jun 7, 2023 12:19 PM ET

In many countries, solar panels make up the largest percentage of renewable energy production. This is for several reasons ranging from their efficiency, ease of installation and their relatively low cost.

For this reason, we are seeing huge investments from governments, private organisations and individuals into solar power. These investments vary in size from personal domestic use to large-scale solar farm installations. 

But with growing popularity comes big challenges, especially when the ever-increasing volume of solar panels reaches the end of their lifespan and need to be decommissioned. After all, simply sending solar panels to landfill is hardly helping overcome the environmental issues that they are supposed to help us mitigate - and it is illegal in certain countries (including the UK and EU). 

In this article, we explore the subject of recycling solar panels and whether this is a viable option for the future. 

Can you recycle solar panels? 

Yes, solar panels can be recycled. In fact, a massive 90% of solar panels are recyclable including key materials such as glass, metal and silicon. 

The recyclable nature of solar panels is an important part of the solar industry’s sustainability efforts and is part of the reason why solar power is considered such an environmentally friendly method of energy production.  

Why recycle solar panels? 

A typical solar panel will have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years. At the end of this lifespan, consideration must be taken over how to remove, dispose and/or recycle the materials used. This is true for several reasons. 

Firstly, solar panels actually contain materials which can be harmful to the environment if not disposed of properly. This includes lead and cadmium. Following a correct procedure for recycling can ensure that these materials do not end up in landfill where they can contaminate soil and water. 

Other materials used in creating solar panels such as silicon, copper and aluminium are finite resources. So, by recycling those materials manufacturers can ensure a consistent supply whilst limiting the need for new mining and extraction efforts. 

Economically, recycling solar panels can create jobs and stimulate the economy in areas where there are high concentrations of solar installations. 

The current state of solar panel waste

Although solar panels can be recycled, this isn’t always the case. As recycling can be costly, it is common for solar panels to simply be discarded once they have reached the end of their lifecycle. 

One report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IREA) suggests that without establishing proper recycling and repurposing systems, the solar panel industry may contribute up to 78 million tonnes of raw materials to landfill by 2050. 

Yet, recycling is increasingly becoming well-established as part of the solar industry. In the EU regulations require an 85% collection and 80% recycling of the materials used in PV panels under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. 

We are likely to see wider spread and more ambitious targets for recycling as time progresses and solar panels become more common. 

The process of solar panel recycling

There are several steps that need to be followed when recycling solar panels. 

Firstly, the solar panels will need to be collected from the home, business or installation location and transported to a specialist recycling facility. Once there they will be shredded into small pieces using specialist equipment. These shredded parts will then be separated based on materials such as glass, metals and silicon wafers.

Each part will then be processed based on their recycling requirements. For example, the glass will be cleaned, crushed and melted down for use in other products. Whilst silicon wafers will be crushed and processed to recover the silicon, which can then be used again to manufacture more solar panels. 

Finally, any waste materials that cannot be recycled will be disposed of in an as environmentally friendly way as possible. 

Solar panel recycling: Challenges

Although recycling solar panels is helping drastically reduce the environmental impact of their lifespan, there are still several challenges to overcome. 

One large challenge is the complexity of the product. This is especially true given the fact that there are variations in the manufacture of solar panels, meaning different panels are developed from different materials and chemical mixes. In turn, this means that multiple different approaches are required for recycling. 

This leads to another challenge of solar recycling - cost. 

With complex recycling processes come higher levels of investment requirements. This can make recycling unattractive and economically unviable in some cases. By establishing better material requirements for solar panels, we may be able to overcome at least some of the complexity and cost issues associated with recycling them.

Finally, although a large percentage (80 to 95%) of materials from solar panels can be recycled, not all can. Although this may seem small, when solar panels are decommissioned at scale, such as with largescale solar farms, this can produce a large amount of non-recyclable waste going to landfill. 

Innovations in solar panel recycling

It is clear that improvements need to be made to the recycling process to ensure that solar power becomes a viable alternative to fossil fuels. New technology is already being created to help us achieve this. 

For example, Australian scientists from Deakin University have recently developed a new process for extracting silicon from solar panels that they say is more financially viable than other options. Their method relies on complex heating and chemical processes and doesn’t require the use of potentially harmful chemicals to extract silicon from panels. 

Although this process is still being tested, if it lives up to its promises, it will offer recyclers a cheaper and more environmentally friendly method for recycling solar panels. In turn, this could help make the cost savings made by extracting silicon outweigh the cost investment. 

Solar panel recycling: Summary 

It is clear that recycling solar panels isn’t just possible, but it is an essential part of ensuring the longevity and long-term viability of solar power as an alternative to fossil fuels. In this article, we have dived into exactly what it takes to recycle solar panels, explored why this is so important and highlighted the challenges which need to be overcome.  

 


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