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Sustainable Energy: Are Solar Panels Recyclable?

Are solar panels recyclable? Here’s what you need to know about recycling solar panels from the team at SmartSolar.org.
Solar Panels
5 minutes
Written by:
Joey Cheek
Updated on:
December 28, 2022

Are solar panels recyclable? Solar panel recycling is one of the most important – but also one of the most complicated – processes. The benefit of using solar panels is that they are a form of renewable energy that is better for the environment. Still, people who want to invest in solar panels need to know a lot about recycling in the solar industry. The fact is they can be hazardous waste, and recycling solar panels is a difficult process. That impacts the good they do for the planet.

SmartSolar.org aims to help you learn everything you need to know about using solar panels, whether you should use them, and how new solar panels are changing the world. If you are considering installing solar panels, reach out to our team today.

Why Solar Panel Recycling Is Challenging

Can solar panels be recycled? The simple answer to this question is yes, it is possible to recycle solar panels, and doing so is not only a good thing, but it is one of the most important ways to encourage long-term solar usage and the expansion of the solar industry. Yet, the process is more complicated than that.

Solar panels are made up of glass, plastic, and aluminum. All three of these materials can be recycled and reused in various applications. While it is possible to recycle all of these materials, doing so can be a challenge. That is because the solar panel itself needs to be taken apart, and that is a more tedious process that requires the use of advanced machinery.

Step 1

The first step in recycling a silicon module is to take the aluminum frame off the solar array. The entire thing is reusable.

Step 2

The second step involves separating the glass component of the solar panel from the remaining components. This is done on a conveyor belt. About 95% of this material can be recycled.

Step 3

The third step is called thermal processing, which requires high heat generation to allow the small particle components to evaporate. This then enables the cells to be easier to separate and pull apart.

After that, the silicon wafers have to be etched away, and the parts have to be melted down into slabs that can be used again. About 85% of that is recyclable.

What Makes Solar Panel Recycling Limited?

If the entire process can happen, why is it hard to recycle solar panels?

There’s no doubt that the solar industry is growing at a rapid rate – with solar panels now generating as much as 4% of the world’s electricity needs, according to data from the International Energy Agency. The growth, which is happening at a very fast rate, is a core concern, though, when it comes to managing the process.

Consider that about 90% of all photovoltaic panels, or PV panels, require the use of crystalline silicon. This material is highly effective and can be used for about 30 years. Then, in 30 years, there will be a massive amount of solar panels that must be disposed of or recycled in some way.

Experts believe that as much as 8 million metric tons of solar panels will be at the end of their lives by 2030. By 2050, that could amount to 80 million. The problem is that there isn't yet a recycling system in place to make sure that these panels are recycled, and most people don't know that recycling is important and possible. PV panels contain toxic materials, including lead, which can create a high risk of those materials damaging the environment.

In the U.S., there are no federal regulations that make it a requirement to recycle PV panels. In fact, only 10% of all the solar panels decommissioned in the U.S. are ever recycled, according to data from the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Should You Invest in Solar Panels, Then?

Solar panels can provide an exceptional opportunity. Along with other groups, the International Renewable Energy Agency is trying to come up with a safe and acceptable way to get rid of old solar panels.

Because solar modules contain valuable materials, there is a benefit to recycling them, and establishing a recycling plant is one way to do that. The more solar panels are used, the more important it will be for there to be new recycling companies in place to help with the process.

Here are some things you should know:

Solar is pretty common

Solar cells are being used more commonly today than ever, and the solar-grade silicon in them is valuable. Recycling makes sense at the end of the life of those panels.

Solar doesn’t release greenhouse gasses

Most of the time, the raw materials for solar panels are easy to find. They can also be used over and over again, and solar energy doesn't release greenhouse gasses. In other words, it’s worth it to put in place processes for taking used solar panels and reusing them. PV recycling could help give these raw materials a second chance at life, which would make it more worthwhile to use these valuable materials.

Solar uses high quality materials

Energy generation is a costly process, no matter how it is produced. Old solar panels are still beneficial, though, and if there are new solutions put into place or regulations from the government on PV waste management, it's certainly worth the process. These valuable materials can enter waste facilities and be pulled apart after they are no longer being able to produce the solar energy desired. This makes sure these valuable metals are reused, and toxic metals are not put into the planet, creating pollution.

Joey Cheek

How SmartSolar.org Can Help You With New Panels

Even though recycling rules might change over time so that toxic materials don't get into the environment, there are many good reasons to buy solar panels for your home. Allow our team at SmartSolar.org to help you with our energy generation needs through the use of a solar cell system designed for your home. Contact us today to get started.

Meet the author:

Joey Cheek

Joey Cheek spent 10 years on the US National Speedskating Team where he competed in two Olympic Games, winning gold, silver, and bronze medals. He attended Princeton before diving into the startup and tech world. In 2011 he launched a livestreaming platform for sports before leading a team of engineers building next-gen news and content apps for Fortune 100 companies. He is the CEO and co-founder of SmartSolar.org, whose mission is to move the earth to cheap, abundant, carbon-free energy.

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