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The energy industry is rapidly evolving with a gradual shift towards renewable energy sources. Among these sources, solar energy is proving to be the most prevalent as more people are investing in innovative solar products and technologies every day. While these sustainable products generally have a long lifespan, they don’t last forever, especially photovoltaic solar panels. These devices use solar radiation to produce electricity for commercial and residential purposes. Unfortunately, their efficiency drops as they get close to the end of their life cycle. This begs the question, “are solar panels recyclable?”
Read on to find out!
The Typical Lifespan of Solar Panels
Like most technologies, solar panels do have an expiration date and begin to lose efficiency slowly as they get close to it. With time, their power output gets reduced. Every year, they only lose approximately 0.5% of their efficiency so even after two decades, they should still be operating at 90% capacity. After 25 to 30 years, solar modules typically reach the end of their lifecycle and are disposed of. Most companies find it easier to export these degraded panels to third-world countries or simply toss them into landfills.
These ways of disposal are employed because the cost of recycling is significantly higher, especially considering the salvage value of the metals is less than the original so most countries are not taking any real interest in solar panel recycling. According to several reports, there could be nearly 80 million tons of solar panel waste by 2050.
If you ever wondered how much you can save by installing solar panels, read our article here.
Hazardous Materials in Solar Panels – The Dark Side of Solar Energy
Solar panels are undoubtedly a sustainable energy source, but they do harbor their fair share of toxic chemicals during solar panel manufacturing and disposal. During these intervals, the following chemicals can leach into the ecosystem:
1. Silicon Tetrachloride
Silicon tetrachloride is one of the main byproducts of solar panel production as crystalline silicon is an essential component during the manufacturing process. This chemical is highly toxic to plants and animals, especially in countries that mass produce solar modules, like China, Taiwan, and Malaysia. The problem with most of these countries is that they do not have clear policies in place to regulate how toxic waste is disposed of in the environment. As a consequence, the locals pay the price for products that they don’t even use.
2. Copper Indium Selenide
Copper Indium Selenide is another essential component found in thin-film solar cells to improve efficiency. When old solar panels are tossed into landfills, the cells begin to leach CdTe into the land and water sources nearby. Accidental ingestion of this chemical can lead to weight gain, lung fibrosis, and other respiratory problems, especially in women.
3. Cadmium Telluride
Cadmium telluride is the most toxic chemical found in solar panels that upon continuous exposure can harden lung and muscle tissues. Other reports link it to several kidney and liver problems, such as cancer or failure.
4. Cadmium Indium Gallium (Di)selenide
Cadmium indium gallium (di)selenide is a highly toxic chemical found in most traditional solar panels. High doses of this chemical can lead to severe lung and tissue inflammation and damage. Many reports also suggest that it can cause fluid build-up in the organs upon continuous exposure, leading to more alarming health concerns, such as cancer and organ failure.
The presence of all these hazardous chemicals and more during the manufacturing and end-of-life intervals is leading to significant health and pollution problems. Thus, countries and industries are now looking for ways to reduce the health and safety impact of the solar panel industry by finding safe disposal and recycling techniques. With a more eco-conscious crowd in the digital era, waste management companies can no longer pick value-added recovery over recycling.
Solar Panel Recycling
The solar industry prides itself on sustainability, especially when compared to the massive carbon footprint fossil fuels, hydroelectric power, and other energy sources leave behind. Unfortunately, solar panels have started to become a problem now considering there’s not much focus on recycling, especially in the US and third-world countries. While the US mainly ships them off to get rid of them, third-world countries toss them into landfills.
If you’re still wondering, “are solar panels recyclable?,” the short answer is “yes.” The only problem is that solar panel recycling is a fairly new concept, especially in the United States, considering most solar system installations occurred in the last decade. So, there’s still time before they become a major problem. However, with the rate at which solar energy technologies and gadgets are growing, companies need to solve the recycling cost problem, which is the main reason most people opt against proper disposal.
Primarily, pv modules comprise plastic, glass, aluminum, and silicon, which are all recyclable materials. However, solar panel recycling is a complex process that also includes the extraction of some heavy metals, such as cadmium, lead and gallium. The labor-intensive process involves disassembling the panels, melting, and separation using advanced machinery. Below are the main steps involved in solar panel recycling:
1. Disassembling the aluminum frame from the body which is 100% reusable for new panel production or other purposes.
2. Extracting the glass from the conveyor belt which is also almost 100% usable.
3. Separating plastic and metals from the panels through thermal processing.
4. Using strong acids (etching) to smelt silicon wafers into 85% reusable slabs.
How Americans Can Dispose of Solar Panels Properly for Recycling
As of 2021, the United States has over two million solar power systems installed around the country. This means that there are millions of PV panels on the streets, rooftops, and farms. So, now, the question is, “what happens when the 30-year lifespan of these panels is finally up?” As things stand, the US is already facing several waste management problems, such as food, chemicals, and plastic. Adding large solar panels to the mix will only add more fuel to the fire so waste management industries need to be more proactive.
The US can pick up a few tricks from their European counterparts considering they are more experienced in solar energy technologies. They have been installing PV panels since the 90s so they have a much more mature market with waste electrical and electronic equipment infrastructure in place. Currently, there aren’t any national policies in the US regarding solar recycling and disposal. Still, Washington has passed a solar product stewardship law that will pressurize the solar industry, especially PV panel manufacturers to develop and execute solar waste management programs.
Overall, solar panel recycling initiatives are quite immature in the US. As a result, American consumers have to step up and play an important role to manage waste. Here are three ways you can help in disposing of solar panels for recycling or reuse:
1. Sell Them or Give them Away
The most cost-effective solution to properly disposing of solar panels is to sell them. This is a great environmental initiative considering the only reason anyone would buy them is to produce clean energy. Sure, the panels won’t be 100% efficient, but they’ll still work pretty well, depending on the type and condition. You can sell them on eBay or your social media page by taking a few pictures. However, you’ll need to cut down the asking price since buying second-hand or used solar panels is a risky investment.
If you’re unable to find a buyer, you’ll find someone to take them for free. However, there’s always a chance that the taker will take them for granted since they’re free and stack them in their shed. While this doesn’t sound good, it’s still a better alternative to ending up in a landfill.
2. Drop them at the Nearest Junkyard
As long as it’s got some metal, it’s gold for junkyards. Your local scrap dealer might take your solar panels off your hands for free or a small price depending on their condition. They can use it to power small appliances or sell them to the highest bidder. Others will tear off all the precious metal they can find, such as the aluminum frames. Even though they’ll most probably end up in a landfill, at least parts of them would be reused.
3. Opt for E-Waste Programs
If you’re unable to sell or give away your solar panels, you can sign up for an electrical and electronic waste program to properly dispose of them. This is a paid solar panel recycling solution but it will make sure that your panels end up at a proper waste management facility where they’ll be recycled or stripped for metal parts.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are some frequently asked questions about solar panel recycling:
1. How much does it cost to recycle solar panels?
According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, recycling an 18-square-foot panel costs between $20 and $30. This makes it significantly more expensive than disposing of it in a landfill. Since many states consider the latter legal, this poses a major threat to the environment.
2. How to dispose of solar panels?
There are many ways to dispose of your solar panels. The best way is to pay for them to be recycled. If that price tag is too big, look for other sustainable and cheaper options like paying for them to be disposed of as electronic waste, selling them, giving them away to someone who might need them, or to a scrap dealer. In some places, the local Council also takes them for free.
3. What percentage of solar panels get recycled?
Research into recycling solar panels indicates that they can be recycled with up to 96% efficiency. Silicon-based recycling indicates up to 85% efficiency. In thin-film-based solar panel recycling, solid and liquid materials are recycled separately, and 95% of liquid material is effectively recycled, while solid materials show a recyclability rate of 90%.
4. Are solar panels hazardous waste?
Not all solar panels are hazardous. Solar pv panels can become hazardous waste if they contain toxic heavy materials like cadmium, lead, silver, and arsenic. At certain levels, these materials can be highly toxic. However, the issue arises when these panels are discarded and removed from use without being recycled.
5. Are solar panels environmentally friendly?
Solar panel-produced electricity yields no greenhouse gases ( no carbon emissions), and uses no fossil fuels. However, producing solar panels requires lots of energy. Luckily, since they last from 20 to 30 years, throughout their lifespan, they generate 4 to 5 times the energy used to produce them.
6. What is the lifespan of solar panels?
As mentioned above, solar panels can last anywhere from 20 to 30 years. After the 25-year mark, while 4 out of 5 panels are still in operational mode, they work at only 75% of their original efficiency. At this point, it is best to recycle pv modules and invest in new ones.
7. What happens to solar panels at end of life?
Most old or degraded solar panels end up in landfills or exported to third-world countries where they’re either stripped for metal or sold as-is to local consumers at lower costs. Solar recycling is an expensive process which is why most companies dispose of them this way.
There is another question that often comes up regarding photovoltaic panels that we cover: we published an article recently about whether solar power is generally sustainable.
Are solar panels recyclable? Yes, they are. The real question is how beneficial solar panel recycling is to future economies. After all, with millions of panels almost reaching their end of life, a proper recycling infrastructure can speed up and enhance the disposal process. More importantly, with solar energy and other renewable energy sources gradually becoming dominant, the recycling industry has a bright future with an estimated $15 billion in recoverable value by 2050. With this money, companies could produce approximately 2 billion new PV and thin-film panels using recycled raw materials.
Did you know that there are other applications of solar energy beyond PV panels, check out our post about the applications of solar power today for more insights.