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?
Are Solar Panels Recyclable?
Solar panels are composed of many recyclable materials, including metal, plastic, glass, and certain rare-earth elements.
Each of these materials is recyclable individually, but when they are all combined together in a solar panel, recycling becomes a bit more complicated.
To recycle a solar panel, each of these materials must be separated and undergo their own recycling process.
What is the process of recycling solar panels? Let’s find out.
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How Are Solar Panels Recycled?
As mentioned before, solar panels are composed of several recyclable materials. The trick to recycling these solar panels is to separate all the recyclable materials and process them separately.
To do this, solar panels must be disassembled and undergo several stages of processing.
Solar recycling typically involves the following steps.
- Solar panels are separated from their metal frames and components. This metal is 100% recyclable.
- Glass is separated from the solar panels. The glass is 95% recyclable.
- The remaining solar panel material is heated to over 900 degree Fahrenheit. This vaporizes the plastic material, which can then be used as a heating source for further processing.
- Chemical etching then isolates the silicon components, which can be smelted down and 85% of the silicon can be recycled.
These steps are represented in the graphic below.
Why Is Sola Panel Recycling Important?
Solar panels are great for the environment and for the health of the population.However, they also contain materials that can be damaging if not handled and disposed of properly.
Solar panels contain toxic chemicals such as silicon, cadmium, and lead. These chemicals can leach into the environment if not disposed of properly, and can needlessly fill up landfills.
Solar panels also contain valuable rare-earth elements, such as gallium and indium, that are in limited supply. These elements only exist in limited quantities on the planet, so it is important to use them properly and recover them when possible.
US Faces Tidal Wave Of Solar Panel Waste
The number of solar panels being installed has increased rapidly in recent years. And with solar technology advances and plummeting solar prices, this trend is likely to continue. But as more and more solar panels are installed, the world will need to look ahead to their eventual disposal.
The useful lifespan of solar panels is about 30 years on average. This means 30 years from now, a tidal wave of obsolete solar panels will need to be uninstalled and disposed of.
In fact, the International Renewable Energy Agency projects that up to 78 million metric tons of solar panels will reach the end of their lifespan by 2050. This will be a huge challenge.
To deal with this oncoming tidal wave of obsolete solar panels, the US will need to think ahead and form a plan for solar recycling and disposal.
Market Forces Could Transform Solar Panel REcycling
In the wake of the oncoming tidal wave of solar panel waste, the states and federal government could step in and create recycling programs to ensure the proper disposal of these solar panels. Similar programs have been set up in the EU, with thousands of tons of solar panels being recycled in 2019.
However, government action is not the only solution for solar panel recycling. As the need for solar panel disposal dramatically increases, the profitability of solar panel recycling services will likely increase steadily. This will attract private companies to create a totally new service industry that could transform the way solar panels are retired and recycled.
This profitability could also be bolstered by the need to recover the rare-earth elements contained within those panels. These rare-earth elements will become more and more profitable to recover as they become even rarer over time.
Altogether, the International Renewable Agency (IRENA) estimates that $15 billion could be recovered from recycling solar modules by the year 2050.
Future government mandates might also put pressure on public-private partnerships that will be able to handle the large influx of solar panels while also ensuring they are disposed of properly according to state and federal regulations.
Either way, the future of solar panel recycling seems to have many paths to profit and responsible disposal.