There are now enough solar panels installed in the United States to power 18.6 million homes. Although this is excellent news for air quality and a stable climate, there is a looming e-waste issue that needs to be addressed. Eventually, these solar PV panels will no longer generate enough electricity, and they will be decommissioned. What will happen to all these solar modules once they reach the end of life? Are solar panels recyclable when they need to be replaced?
It is possible to recycle many of the components in solar panels. Still, there is currently a lack of recycling infrastructure in the United States, and panels are challenging to recycle. At Smart Solar Energy, we consider solar panel recycling important because it helps protect the environment and conserve resources. So, let’s explore this critical topic to understand how to make solar panel recycling increasingly common, cost-effective, and widespread.
The design life of photovoltaic solar panels in Oregon is about 25 to 30 years, but this varies a bit by the manufacturer. Over time, solar panels become less effective in converting sunlight to generate an electrical current due to degradation from weather and UV rays. Most of the solar panels in the Pacific Northwest were installed in the last ten years. Thus, the effectiveness of these panels will decrease, especially once they are 25 to 30 years old. Eventually, they will need to be replaced. This means that in 15 or 20 years, a system needs to be in place that can handle a large volume of solar panels.
Currently, only a tiny fraction of solar modules are recycled. Unfortunately, solar modules are expensive and difficult to recycle due to a lack of governmental policies, recycling infrastructure, and foresight in the panel design process. For the solar energy industry to indeed produce clean power, this needs to change, and we must begin recycling solar panels effectively.
What materials are in solar PV panels?
It is critical to understand what components make up a solar panel to understand the recycling process better. Silicon-based PV modules contain glass, plastic, aluminum, and silicon. Also, they have trace toxic compounds, including lead. Unfortunately, without adequate disposal, these compounds can leach into groundwater, contaminating the water. Also, thin-film solar can contain cadmium telluride (CdTe), which is both toxic and carcinogenic. Because thin-film solar constitutes less than 5 percent of the global PV market, it is a smaller-scale yet concerning issue.
How are solar panels recycled?
First, panel recyclers must disassemble them to remove the glass and metal materials found in the frames and junction boxes. Then, the remaining components are downcycled into low-value products because the materials are not as valuable. Thus, material recovery rates in panel recycling are often around 85%, and unfortunately, the demand for the recycled materials is weak. So, low demand leads to low prices, which reduces the incentive for recyclers to process these materials because no laws mandate this in most states.
Are there laws requiring solar panel recycling?
Currently, no national laws require solar modules to be recycled either nationally or in Oregon. However, Washington does have a policy that puts the responsibility on the manufacturers, making it a leader in solar panel recycling.
According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, “Washington State may offer a solution to the impending solar panel disposal crisis. The Washington Photovoltaic (PV) Module Stewardship and Takeback Program, first passed in 2017 as part of a solar incentive bill, requires solar PV manufacturers to finance the takeback and recycling of panels at no cost to their owners. The manufacturers must also meet specific recycling standards.”
How can we improve the solar panel recycling system?
Sometimes, solar panels can be refurbished, thus extending their useful life. This is an eco-friendly and appealing option when possible, as reuse is generally better for the environment than recycling. Also, such initiatives create a secondary market for solar materials and keep prices down while minimizing waste. Therefore, refurbishing solar panels makes more affordable panels available, enabling households to go solar that might not have been able to afford the equipment otherwise.
One issue that needs to be addressed is the relatively low recovery rates in solar panel recycling. To realize a dramatic advancement in solar panel recycling requires the direct reuse of materials in the frame, glass, and solar PV cells. Also, the copper, silver, and silicon in panels create a valuable opportunity when effectively recovered. Thus, silicon could be directly recycled back into new solar panels or the anodes on lithium-ion batteries. This would minimize waste while conserving energy and precious resources.
Where can I recycle my solar panels?
Likely, this will not be an issue for many years unless you were a solar pioneer and had your solar panels installed many years ago. Currently, the United States does not have a national network for solar PV panel recycling, but there are various recycling options.
The National PV Recycling Program by the Solar Energy Industries Association has designated Preferred Recycling Partners that meet certain standards and criteria. When in doubt, this is an excellent place to start. Cascade Eco-Minerals, Echo Environmental, Green Century Recycling, and ERI are all preferred recycling partners. Also, two solar manufacturers lead the way in recycling: First Solar and SunPower.
They have recycling facilities in the United States, Germany, and Malaysia, with up to 90 percent recovery rates. According to First Solar’s website, they can reuse up to 90% of the semiconductor material in new panels, and 90% of the glass can be recycled for new glass products.
This solar panel manufacturer has a recycling collection program for its products and uses partners to recycle the materials. Its Maxeon E-Series and X-Series direct current (DC) modules even earned the Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Bronze status. This is a designation for “safer, more sustainable products made for the circular economy.”
Cascade Eco Minerals
One thing that impresses the Smart Solar Energy team about this company is its zero-landfill commitment. And, it either processes all recyclable materials in-house, or it sends them to partners for recycling. They have seven solar recycling locations in the United States, and they also send panels to solar refurbishing providers when possible.
This company is based in Carrollton, Texas, and it domestically recycles electronics. It can process scrap metal and products containing precious metals, including photovoltaic panels, inverters, and charge controllers. What’s great is they are a one-stop-shop for solar equipment recycling.
Is there an effective national solar panel recycling program in the US?
Unfortunately, the United States lacks recycling infrastructure, and solar panels are no exception. Previously, our country sent a lot of its recyclable waste to China, but they began banning this practice. As a result, the United States needs to build a recycling infrastructure to handle our waste.
In particular, we need to create an adequate system to process solar panels on a large scale because there is a looming waste issue on the horizon. Unfortunately, solar panel recycling isn’t profitable. Therefore, recycling incentives could stimulate growth and create high-quality jobs. In fact, the sustainability of the renewable power industry depends on establishing a thriving recycling market for both processors and manufacturers.
Are there policies in our country requiring solar panel recycling?
Unfortunately, the United States lags behind the European Union in creating comprehensive laws and policies to encourage safe and effective solar recycling. For example, the European Union has a program under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive. A national policy would help keep millions of panels out of landfills and protect water quality. Also, it would simplify things so there would be consistent policies across the country. Finally, a national policy would help make solar recycling more cohesive and synchronized instead of some states having piecemeal solutions.
However, a few states have policies to help promote panel recycling efforts, with California and Washington as leaders. In California, solar panels are designated as hazardous waste, thus encouraging recycling. In Washington, a solar stewardship program requires manufacturers to collect panels for recycling at no charge to customers. Currently, Oregon does not have any policies mandating solar panel recycling. Designing solar panels for recyclability
Ultimately, solar panels need to be designed with recycling in mind. Currently, recycling panels involves a combination of mechanical, thermal, and chemical processes, which make recycling difficult and costly. In addition, toxicity concerns make proper handling critical.
Manufacturers need to create a comprehensive recycling strategy that includes designing solar panels for decommissioning by using fewer toxic ingredients and making material extraction more straightforward and accessible. This would then reduce the costs associated with recycling, creating a win-win solution. For example, reducing the use of lead-based soldering to bind together electronic components is an excellent initial step as it removes one of the harmful components of the panels.
Why should I use Smart Solar Energy?
At Smart Solar Energy, we attempt to make every solar system as sustainable as possible. One of the reasons we are in business is to create a cleaner world for future generations. One way we do this is to install the solar system properly.
Unfortunately, we have seen what happens when a system isn’t installed and wired correctly. In addition to being wasteful, it also decreases the energy the system produces, decreasing the system’s return on investment. Improper installation can also void equipment warranties.
We are dedicated to installing solar systems properly for long-term solar energy production. Our solar installation team includes NABCEP-certified installers and licensed electricians. We believe in completing quality work.
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