A Level Playing Field For Recycling
Im not saying we should never consider recycling solar panels. Im not even saying that if you want to recycle your solar panels you shouldnt. But I am saying, at this time, we should not require solar panels to be recycled. I am confident it will harm the environment more than it helps. We definitely should not put a fee on solar panels to pay for their future recycling as this will increase the cost of solar power and slow the rate at which fossil fuel generation is driven out of the market.
But Im a reasonable person and willing to compromise. Ill accept a requirement that all solar panels have to be recycled, provided the coal power industry is held to exactly the same standard. No more ash dams, ash pits, and ash hills. All that toxic crud has to be recycled somehow. Technically, every chemical reaction can be reversed, so if they apply themselves maybe they can turn a lump of coal ash back into ScoMos heart.
A crap solar burial. Image Credit: Emjay Peacock
Option : Shove Them Out Of The Way
The final option is to not get rid of them but simply store them yourself. I class this as being the most costly choice because if you had a convenient place to store old panels you probably wouldnt be reading this article about how to get rid of them in the first place.
While Im not recommending storing old solar panels, the good news is they arent particularly dangerous and wont cause any health problems if you have them hanging around.3 Compared to other electronics such as TVs, laptops, and mobile phones they are quite benign and far less toxic than the three most common things Australians store in their sheds, which are old paint tins, lawnmower parts, and spiders.
If you decide to store panels and they are kept out of sunlight in a dry location then provided they arent crap they should suffer minimal deterioration as they will be in a kinder environment than on a roof and should be in much the same condition years later if you find a use for them. But if you are intending for them to be used again you should make sure they arent banged around when they are removed from the roof and put into storage. While solar panels can survive a lot of punishment, its still not good to punish them.
But if they have been stored in damp conditions I dont recommend ever trying to use them again. Constant dampness is probably an express ticket to solar panel failure.
How Are Solar Panels Recycled
The question is important because the solar industry is not just about saving people money it is also about reducing our carbon footprint and helping to protect the planet.
But how can solar panels be recycled, and what impact could that have on the planet?
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Solar Waste Is Mostly Harmless
Some people are concerned if stripped solar panels are stacked in a field or buried in landfill, deadly toxins will leach out and wreak havoc, resulting in deaths, mutations, and tooth decay. Im not saying we shouldnt take sensible precautions, but we put far worse things into landfill everyday without worrying about it. Solar panels are a very benign form of electronic waste. While the solder used in them contains lead, the amount is so small if they are put into landfill the dirt that comes out of the hole can contain more lead than the solar panels. The silicon in the solar cells is made from reduced sand12 and is not dangerous. It is doped with chemicals but the amounts are minuscule and the chemicals used arent particularly scary.
Some solar farms and old rooftop solar installations use cadmium telluride panels instead of silicon ones. While cadmium is dangerous, cadmium telluride is very stable and not considered toxic if you happen to swallow it.
Fire safety standards have eliminated many of the toxins from plastics used in solar panels, as they cant be sold if they emit significant amounts of toxic gas when on fire. Plastic backsheets can contain small amounts of fluorine but its normally stable over long periods if it isnt burned. We use fluorine containing plastics for whiteboards and raincoats and I personally rub paste that contains it against my teeth at least twice a day. But dont get complacent. Some fluorine compounds are the stuff of nightmares.
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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Explore Your Solar Options On Energysage
Solar panel recycling may not be widespread yet, but solar energy is still a great financial investment that is environmentally friendly as well. By going solar now, you can cut your electric bill and start saving right away. Sign up for the EnergySage Marketplace to receive free quotes from our network of qualified, pre-vetted installers so you can start the process of going solar.
The Future Benefits Of Solar Waste Management
Now that we know that solar panels can be recycled, the question is what other benefits it brings to the economyif any. Obviously, a proper solar panel recycling infrastructure will need to be established to manage the large volumes of PV modules that will be disposed in near future. Once that is in place, well be witnessing several positive factors and new opportunities within the economy.
Not only will PV recycling create more green job opportunities but also approximately £11 billion in recoverable value by 2050. This influx will make it possible to produce 2 billion new panels without the need to invest in raw materials. This means that there will be the capacity of producing around 630 GW of energy just from reusing previously used materials.
Thanks to constant solar energy price drops, more and more households and businesses choose to invest in solar power systems. As a result, even more economic opportunities in the solar cell recycling sector will emerge.
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Why Solar Panel Recycling Is Important
Solar panels reach the end of their useful life after about 30 years. As the use of solar panels grows, so does the amount of waste from broken or decommissioned panels. A significant increase in solar panel waste is coming. In fact, by 2050, waste from solar panels could account for 10% of the total electronic waste in the world.
Today, about 90% of solar panels end up in landfills, where, like all e-waste, they eventually leach toxic chemicals into the ground and water supply.
In addition to being better for the environment, recycling solar panels has an economic benefit. Over the next 30 years, recycled solar panel parts could have an estimated 15 billion dollar value and may be able to produce as much as 630 GW of electricity if used in new modules.
What Are Solar Panels Made Of
Solar PV modules consist of multiple solar cells that are protected by glass and plate covered by a waterproof and translucent layer usually made of plastic. The plate is encased in a metal frame, often aluminium. Glass, metal and plastic account for up to 90 percent of the module’s weight. Most panels also contain copper and small amounts of silver in metallisation pastes. But the biggest difference in component materials is determined by the cell technology used.
As of 2017, 85 percent of all installed solar cells worldwide were crystalline silicon cells, according to World Bank figures. Germany’s Federal Environment Agency says with 95 percent the share in Germany is even higher. CS cells bundle the crystalline silicon in wafer plates that work as semiconductors. They often contain small amounts of lead and thin film made of cadmium, which is are considered a toxic material that requires careful treatment when decommissioning an installation.
The other key technology uses thin film cells, which are more flexible than CS cells and are made of more complex components like copper indium gallium selenide , cadmium telluride or amorphous silicon-germanium cells. These might require fewer material volumes but can be more toxic and less abundant. In any case, these varieties illustrate the range of possible input materials for solar PV installations.
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Tossing Old Solar Panels Into Landfill Is Greener Than Recycling Them
The conventional response to criticism of solar waste is panels can simply be recycled. But is that the greenest option?
Recycling is a good thing. Most of the time. Humans have been reusing material for thousands of years, probably beginning on a large scale when early agriculturalists noticed poo is good for plants. Ancient Greeks didnt let pieces of broken pottery go to waste and used them like notepaper, while my father would collect rubber bands because a dozen were worth a few cents back in 1950.
Recycling reduces the need for raw materials. Normally thats a good thing for the environment, but not always. If it involves an environmentally destructive process or requires a lot of energy which mostly comes from fossil fuels right now then recycling can be a bad idea.
Because recycling solar panels requires a considerable amount of energy and expense, and because they are mostly harmless when put into landfill, Im certain recycling solar panels is a clear environmental negative. This is likely to change in the future but until then I believe we should simply stack and/or bury them.
The inscription on this Ancient Greek pottery shard reads, Keanus not immortal.
Landfilling Old Solar Panels Likely Safe For Humans New Research Suggests
Recycling the materials from spent PV panels and wind blades is the ultimate goal but doing so remains costly.
End-of-life modules can be recycled, but the IEA suggests they pose no landfill health threats.
The International Energy Agency’s Photovoltaics Power Systems Programme* will release research later this year showing that solar panels can be landfilled safely, amid growing concern over the disposal of renewable energy components.
Solar panels have a range of recycling options, but none of them are perfect. The challenges for wind turbine blades are even greater.
The IEA PVPS study will show that disposing of solar panels in landfills is unlikely to have an adverse impact on human health, according to co-author Garvin Heath, a senior scientist in the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratorys resources and sustainability group.
The study, which is due to be released within a couple of months as part of the IEA PVPSs Task 12 sustainability research activities, looked at the potential for human health impacts under a worst-case scenario involving unlined landfill sites with water seepage affecting crushed modules.
The research was limited to the primary pollutant in each of the three biggest classes of solar panels today: crystalline silicon, cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium selenide . The pollutants studied were lead, cadmium and selenium, respectively.
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The Lifetime Of Solar Panels
How long do solar panels last? A question that most people have in mind when considering solar panels. According to studies, the life expectancy of solar panels is about 30 years before decommissioning.
During the life of photovoltaic panels, a 20 per cent decrease in power capacity might occur. Between the first 10 to 12 years, the maximum decrease in efficiency is 10 per cent, and 20 per cent when reaching 25 years. These figures are guaranteed by the majority of manufacturers.
Still, experience shows that, in reality, the efficiency drops by merely 6 to 8 per cent after 25 years. The lifespan of solar panels may thus be much longer than officially stated. The lifespan of high quality PV panels may even reach 30 to 40 years, and be still functional afterwards, though with decreasing efficacy.
Solar Panel Recycling: Lets Make It Happen
This is one of four blogs in a series examining current challenges and opportunities for recycling of clean energy technologies. Please see the introductory post, as well as other entries on wind turbines and energy storage batteries. Special thanks to Jessica Garcia, UCSs Summer 2020 Midwest Clean Energy Policy Fellow, for research support and co-authoring these posts.
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Financing Solar Panel Recycling Through The Eco
In order to finance the collection, logistics, and recycling of solar panels, an eco-tax is included in the sale price of each solar panel. There is no profit margin on the eco-tax, which is transferred to PV CYCLE subsequent to the submission of a quarterly declaration stating the number of panels sold.
The eco-tax amount is based on the current cost associated with recycling a photovoltaic panel. All decisions regarding the eco-tax are made by a dedicated committee consisting of various players within the photovoltaic industry.
The eco-tax fee structure varies from one year to the next.The 2020 eco-tax fee structure for France is available on PV CYCLES French web page.
How Long Do Solar Panels Last
When talking about the lifespan of solar panels, the biggest factor is degradation. Degradation is the gradual reduction in the amount of electricity your solar panels can produce. In other words, your solar panels slowly produce less electricity as they age.
Once the manufacturers warranty runs out, they reach the end of what is known as their useful life. However, that doesnt mean its the end of their actual life.
Just because theyre only producing 80% of the energy they did in year one doesnt mean theyre not still providing value to you. In fact, they could be providing more value to you than they did in year one. How so? Historically electric rates have increased at a higher rate than solar panels degrade. So even though youre producing less electricity, youre saving more money because the cost of electricity has increased.
So to answer the question of how long solar panels last, at least a couple of decades, but thats really going to be up to you. Youll need to decide at what point its worth looking into new technology to replace them.
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Option : Pay For The Panels To Be Disposed Of As E
You can pay to have your solar panels properly disposed of as electronic waste or e-waste, as the cool kids call it these days. If you turn up at your local e-waste disposal centre with just a few panels they may charge a flat fee for each, which could be $20. Alternatively, they may charge by weight and have you drive over a weighbridge. As a typical charge is $750 or more a tonne expect to pay around $14 to $20 per standard sized panel.
After youve paid for your solar panels to be properly disposed of as e-waste they still wont be recycled. Not anytime soon at least. Instead the aluminium frames and junction boxes will be ripped off and the panels stacked in temporary storage. But, on the bright side, someone will probably think really hard about recycling them in the future.
Remember kids, smoking will turn your CPU to e-waste.
What Will We Do With Old Solar Panels
Humanity has a two- or three-decade runway to learn how best to deal with solar panels at the end of their useful life, but by 2050, its expected solar panels will account for 60 million tons of waste. Recycling all the materials that go into making them is essential, because those 60 million tons of panels will represent nearly $16 billion in valuable resources, and some materials used are potentially toxic if discarded in a landfill.
We have the perfect proving ground: as production of solar panels ramps up, there will inevitably be a need to recycle broken panels, duds, and panels destroyed by natural disasters. Now is the time for governments and the industry to set the standards for recycling the panels that can be used as the amount of solar waste increases in the coming decades.
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Higher Material Recovery An Economic Win
Todays mechanical recycling processes for PV modules typically recover lower-quality materials that are less valuable. Emerging high-recovery recycling processes recover more valuable materials like silver, copper, and silicon that can be used again.
In scenarios with the high-recovery process, recycler cumulative net income increases by $1.3 billion in 2050. Add in higher recycling rates or lower recycling costs, and the value of recycled PV modules increases further.
A circular economy for energy materials reduces waste and preserves resources by designing materials and products with reuse, recycling, and upcycling in mind from the start.