How To Recycle Solar Panels
Solar panel recycling is in its early days. For consumers in the U.S., that means that recycling your solar panels at the end of their usable life will require a bit of time and research. Start by checking a global database of solar panel recycling companies, or check to see if your state maintains its own directory for solar recycling, like this one from North Carolina.
Some solar panel manufacturers, such as First Solar, offer their own take-back and recycling program. Customers can return solar panels at the end of the panels’ life and the manufacturer will recycle them. Contact your manufacturer to find out if they offer this service.
Reduces The Extraction Of Raw Materials
Although glass, aluminum, and copper arent as rare as elements used for semiconductor layers, they have high embodied energy value.
This means that the extraction of raw materials and the associated industries both require a lot of energy and produce significant emissions.
With todays recycling technology we can reuse almost 95% of the glass from solar modules, while all aluminum parts can be used for the manufacture of new cell frames. We can also reuse copper wiring for junction box cabling in new modules.
Ninety-five per cent is an exceptional recycling figure, especially for a multi-component product. Only soda cans can claim to do better but they dont reach 100% either.
Bertrand Lempkowicz, Communications Manager, PV Cycle
What To Do If Your Solar Panels Are Broken
While solar panels dont need extensive maintenance, they do degrade over time. In addition to the natural degradation of solar panels, they can also break. Understanding the potential reasons why solar panels might break before expected and what to do if they do will relieve stress.
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Preventative Measures For Solar Arrays
While we cant prevent all potential threats, taking preventative measures can save a lot of money and stress if your solar panels dont last as long as anticipated. The two main ways to prevent solar homeowners from dealing with the stress of an unanticipated malfunction include warranties and insurance. However, other preventative measures also help.
Tons Of Solar Panels Installed In The Early 2000s Are Reaching The End Of Their Lifecycles Posing A Serious Problem For The Industry To Contend With Current Solar Panel Disposal Practices Are Far From Being Environmentally Friendly
On paper, solar energy seems more promising than ever. Solar cells are becoming easier to produce, along with becoming increasingly compact and portable. But there are a few problems with solar energy thats seldom talked about. Questions remain about whether their production and waste creates more pollutants than the fossil fuels they aim to replace.
Manufacturing solar panels often requires the use of several noxious chemicals. To add to that, solar panels have an operating lifespan of around 20 to 30 years. Since they were first introduced in the 2000s, literal tons of solar panels are reaching the end of their lifespan. Because it’s not easy to properly dispose of the toxic metals inside the solar cells and there’s an overall lack of oversight it is often cheaper to discard them in landfills or send them to developing countries. As solar panels sit in dumps, the toxic metals they contain can leech out into the environment and possibly pose a public health hazard if they get into the groundwater supply.
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Lack Of Solar Panel Recycling Policies In The Us
There are no national policies in the U.S., but some states are leading the way. Washington state has a solar stewardship program requiring manufacturers to collect panels at their end of life for recycling at no charge to the customer.
Europe, by contrast, has policies for solar panel recycling programs the manufacturers are responsible for the takeback and recycling of their products. As a result, Europe is leading the way in solar panel recycling and has dedicated facilities that recycle panels for reuse.
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Solar Panel Recycling By The Numbers
- Global solar electricity generation grew by 16% in 2020
- Almost 78 million tons of solar panel waste will be generated by the top five countries by the year 2050
- 96% of materials from silicon-based solar panels can be recycled
- 97% of materials from non-silicon based solar panels can be recycled
- Recycling one solar panel can cost between $15-$45 dollars
- Disposal in a non-hazardous waste landfill costs around $1
- Disposal in a hazardous waste landfill costs around $5
Separation And Other Micro
Here are the main output materials extracted:
- Metals such as aluminum or copper
The average recycling quota is 94.7%.
What about the recycled glass from the panel, you may ask? It is combined with standard glass cullet and then used to make fiberglass, insulation, and glass packaging products.
As for the metals and plastic materials, they are used in the production of new raw materials.
Recycling not only salvages resources but also reduces CO2 emissions. For that matter, a report by the German Fraunhofer Institute concluded that recycling one ton of photovoltaic panels spares 1,200 kg of CO2 emissions! That is good news for the photovoltaic carbon footprint.
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Disposal Of Solar Panels
From a regulatory aspect, PV panel waste still falls under the general waste classification. A sole exception exists at EU-level, where PV panels are defined as e-waste in the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive. The PV panel waste management is thus regulated by this directive, additionally to other legal frameworks.
The solar cells manufacturers are bound by law to fulfil specific legal requirements and recycling standards in order to make sure that solar panels do not become a burden to the environment. That is when technologies to recycle solar panels started emerging.
producers collaborated with governmental institutions and have come up with a few ways to tackle solar waste.
Silicon Based Solar Panel Recycling
The recycling process of silicon-based PV panels starts with disassembling the actual product to separate aluminium and glass parts. Almost all of the glass can be reused, while all external metal parts are used for re-molding cell frames. The remainder materials are treated at 500°C in a thermal processing unit in order to ease up the binding between the cell elements. Due to the extreme heat, the encapsulating plastic evaporates, leaving the silicon cells ready to be further processed. The supporting technology ensures that not even this plastic is wasted, therefore it is reused as a heat source for further thermal processing.
After the thermal treatment, the green hardware is physically separated. 80% of these can readily be reused, while the remainder is further refined. Silicon particlescalled wafersare etched away using acid. Broken wafers are melted to be used again for manufacturing new silicon modules, resulting in 85% recycling rate of the silicon material.
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What Parts Of A Solar Panel Can Be Recycled
There are certain components within a solar panel that can be recycled much easier than other parts. Up to 95 per cent of a solar panel can be recycled, with the most valuable parts being the glass, aluminium frames, polymers, silicon, copper and silver paste. The silver paste and aluminium frames are particularly valuable to obtain through this process. About 80 per cent of crystalline silicon can also be recovered through a refined recycling process.
Why Do People Recycle Old Solar Panels
According to the Macquarie University, Australia is estimated to accumulate one million tonnes of solar panel waste by 2047, with this number likely to increase as more people prematurely upgrade their systems. Solar panels contain toxic chemicals, such as lead, to help assist the photovoltaic cells convert sunlight into electricity. When old and broken panels are left in landfills, these chemicals can leak out, causing hazardous environments. In order to prevent this wastage, home-owners are encouraged to recycle old and unwanted solar panels.
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Solar Panels Are A Pain To Recycle These Companies Are Trying To Fix That
A new plant in France aims to extract silver from old solar panels to make recycling them worth the trouble.
Millions of solar panels have been installed in the last two decadesand since they typically last between 25 and 30 years, many will soon be ready for retirement and probably headed to a landfill. But new efforts to recycle these panels could reduce both the amount of waste and the new material that needs to be mined.
Only about 10% of panels in the US are recycledit isnt mandated by federal regulations, and recycling the devices is currently much more expensive than just discarding them. But the materials in solar panels coming offline each year could be worth an estimated $2 billion by 2050. New efforts, including one approach from a French startup called ROSI, are trying to recapture these valuable materials, especially silver and silicon, to make recycling the panels more financially viable.
Most Solar Panels End Up In Landfill
Australia has one of the highest uptakes of rooftop solar in the world, with almost 3 million homes now using solar panel power.
The surge for solar began around 2010, and has risen quickly and sharply.
The lifespan of a solar panel can be anywhere from 10 to 25 years, so that means the number of panels nearing the end of their lives is about to grow exponentially.
Currently, almost all broken or expired solar panels go into landfill and experts have been warning for some time that more than 100,000 tonnes of modules will end up there by 2035.
Clive Fleming runs one of only a few solar panel recycling plants in Australia, Reclaim PV in Adelaide.
“We operate Australia-wide and we do our services through collection, whether it’s a drop-off point or we can pick it up from any site around Australia,” Mr Fleming said.
The service is open to manufacturers, installers, retailers, solar farm operators and homeowners, and the cost to recycle one solar panel is roughly $10 plus freight to South Australia.
Demand is small-scale but strong, and coming mostly from manufacturers doing warranty claims and retailers who are helping an increasing number of households to upgrade their decade-old systems.
“Homeowners do come about and pay for their panels to be recycled as well,” Mr Fleming said.
“The biggest challenge is developing the network and making sure people know there’s actually a choice available to them other than landfill.”
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Can You Reuse Solar Panels
The market for the used solar panel is booming every year. When you return the solar panel to the manufacturer due to manufacturing defects, the brand refurbishes it. If repairs are possible, the manufacturers will consider re-selling the solar panels.
The old solar panels might require a new junction box, framing, and even brand new solar cells. Manufacturers generally label the refurbished solar panels accordingly. Also, their selling cost might be 70% lower than usual.
Various suppliers mark them as second-generation products. So yes, you can reuse solar panels. However, make your mind that it wont be as efficient as a new one.
The Current State Of Solar Panel Recycling
In the U.S., when solar manufacturers take back used solar panels, they can either dispose of or recycle them. Unfortunately, because of the labor-intensive process of recycling panels and the economics of the process, most solar panels in the U.S. end up in landfills.
When solar panels are recycled, it is most often done at glass recycling plants. The specialized glass from the solar panels is blended in with regular glass to be used as insulation. However, there is a lot of focus within the solar industry on optimizing the recycling process, and countries are exploring the possibility of building new recycling plants specific to solar panels.
In 2012, the European Union issued the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment directive, which requires the recycling of e-waste like solar panels in order to protect human health and the environment. Because of this regulatory mandate, Europe became the only continent that has recycling centers dedicated to recycling solar panels.
Other countries, including Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea, are currently developing guidance and mandates for solar panel recycling. In the U.S., the question of solar recycling mandates is left to the states currently, Washington is the only state with such a mandate.
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Causes Of Premature Solar Panel Replacement
While solar panels do degrade, they may need replacing before their 25 to 30-year warranty if the solar panel develops microcracks, gets hit by lightning, or extreme weather causes havoc. Each of these unfortunate possibilities can compromise the integrity of the solar panel, causing it to underperform.
Microcracks in Solar Panels
Microcrack causes include manufacturing mistakes, incorrect mounting, or improper installation. Make sure to choose solar panels that receive rigorous testing. The solar installer also shouldnt stand on the solar panels while installing them and follow the manufacturers mount location guidelines.
Lightning and Solar Panels
While lightning myths suggest that metal attracts lightning, the truth is that lightning often hits the tallest lone object in the area no regardless of its construction materials. Solar panels dont increase the chance of being struck by lightning. However, if lightning hits your home, it could cause significant damage to your solar panels.
To protect your solar panels from the risks of lightning, solar panels need a lightning protection system. These systems include grounded air terminals to direct lighting away and surge protector devices to prevent lightning from frying the system.
Potential Malfunctions Due to Extreme Weather
French And European Laws On Solar Panel Recycling
In Europe, the WEEE directive regulates the management of products that have reached the end of their useful life. It requires Producers to comply with national waste management regulations. This notably involves bearing the financial and administrative burden associated with the product management. The Producers are the manufacturers and importers of electronic and electrical equipment.
Thus, in 2014, photovoltaic panel producers encouraged the creation of the PV CYCLE Association, which would allow them to jointly undertake the legal obligation of collection and recycling. Now each producer pays an eco-tax to PV CYCLE, who then handles the recycling process.
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When Do Solar Panels Need To Be Recycled
According to GreenBiz, solar panels have an average lifetime of about 25 to 30 years. Considering the planned obsolescence of most technology in the modern age, that isnt too bad. However, as solar continues to grow ever more popular, technological advancements will result in a higher degree of true obsolescence among older panels. This will undoubtedly increase the number of panels that need to be changed out, disposed of, or recycled.
Solar Panel Recycling Processes
There are two main types of solar panels, requiring different recycling approaches. Both typessilicon based and thin-film basedcan be recycled using distinct industrial processes. Currently, silicon based panels are more common, though that does not mean that there would not be great value in the materials of thin-film based cells.
Research studies conducted on the topic of recycling solar panels have resulted in numerous technologies. Some of them even reach an astonishing 96% recycling efficiency, but the aim is to raise the bar higher in the future.
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Why Shouldnt Solar Panels Go To The Landfill
Solar panels shouldnt go to the landfill because it would be a great loss of valuable materials.
Silicon is especially interesting for recovery because of its super-high purity. PV-grade silicon from monocrystalline modules can be reused in new PV modules. Metallurgical-grade silicon, on the other hand, that comes from polycrystalline modules can be repurposed in advanced lithium-ion batteries.
Like many other forms of e-waste, some types of solar PV modules also contain lead, cadmium, and other toxic metals and polymers that are impossible to remove without breaking the whole panel apart.
If they are allowed to leak into the environment, these hazardous components can cause significant pollution and health issues.To fully close the energy circle, we need to safely dispose of and recycle PV modules that reach their end of life.
Solving Wind Power’s Blade Problem
The same cannot be said for fiberglass-based wind turbine blades, though. And although the blades, like solar panels, are not expected to pose a health hazard, their size is seen as a challenge when it comes to disposal.
In February, a Bloomberg report claimed U.S. wind operators were sending 8,000 blades a year to landfills. While 85 percent of wind turbine components can be recycled or reused, fiberglass blades remain difficult to dispose of, the report said.
Eric Goetz, chief technology officer at Goetz Composites, thinks he has an answer. As a board member of the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association, he has been looking at how to dispose of the fiberglass- and epoxy-resin-based hulls of association members old boats.
As a result, in 2016 the association embarked on what Goetz said was the first pilot project in the U.S. to turn fiberglass hulls into cement. The silica in fiberglass is used to create an aggregate while the epoxy resin is burned, helping offset the energy required for the process.
Last year 18 tons of hulls were processed in the scheme, said Goetz. He believes the same process could be used to recycle U.S. wind turbine blades, which are made of similar materials.
I think it is an emerging solution, although its obviously something we need to dive into, he told GTM.
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