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Do you know that the use of solar energy worldwide is undergoing a radical change? In the last decade, the solar energy industry has grown to such an extent that soon, we may see solar panel systems at every rooftop. 

The graph below shows the cumulative installed solar PV capacity.

cumulative installed solar PV capacity
Source: Statista

The solar industry has grown 33 percent per annum in the last 12 years. The growth will continue as governments across the globe fund and promote the establishment of solar panels.

But have you ever thought about what will happen to these panels once their life cycle is over? This article aims to guide you on how solar panels can be recycled and its benefits.

Are solar panels recyclable?

Yes, solar panels can be recycled. This is mainly because solar panels are constructed from silicon, glass and aluminium, which are easy to break down.

Thus once the life cycle of solar panels is over, they can be carefully broken down and reused. This means that new solar panels can be constructed from old ones with proper recycling.

The lifespan of solar panels

On average, solar panels can last up to 30 years. However, this depends on various factors, such as the quality of the product and the materials used for construction.

However, unlike people think, solar panels won’t just stop electricity production after 25 years. Instead, the panels can still function for another decade with reduced efficiency and might last for another decade.

used solar panels

Considering the power capacity, we can see that during the first 12 years, there will be a maximum 10 percent reduction in the power capacity and 20 per cent after the completion of 20 years.

However, experience has proven that for most solar panels, the overall efficiency drops only by 6 to 9 per cent after two decades. For high-quality solar panels, the broad life span can last up to 40 years and still be functional afterwards.

Also read: Used solar panels

Are solar panels hazardous waste?

All solar panels are declared hazardous waste in several US and European Union. This is mainly because solar panels have harmful elements such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and tellurium, which is classified as hazardous.

Solar panels will turn into hazardous waste when: 

  • The user decides to discard the unused solar panels.
  • Old boards are dumped in landfills without proper recycling.

However, it is essential to know that if the manufacturer uses non-toxic components in their panels, there may not be a significant hazard to the environment.

The solar panels recycling process

Before going further into the recycling process, let us first understand the composition of solar panels. 

Nowadays, most solar panels are made out of crystalline silicon. Research has indicated that the percentage of panels made of crystalline silicon accounts for 95%.

The silicon panels are designed specifically to withstand exposure to elements for decades. The PV (photovoltaic) panels are covered in plastic and sandwiched between a back sheet and glass. The entire setup is held in place by an aluminium frame. A junction box is placed at the back of the panel having copper wiring.

Let us take a closer look at how the actual disassembling and recycling are done for the panels.

Initial disassembling: The aluminium frame and the junction box placed behind are initially removed to extract the aluminium and copper. These are entirely usable.

Removing glass casing: After the initial disassembling, the module goes through a conveyor belt to remove the glass casing. The recovered glass is also 95% reusable.

Heat separation: In this stage, the remaining material is heated to 500 degrees Celsius, softening the inter-cellular bond. The plastic casing will melt off, further exposing the cell elements. The melted plastic will be reused later.

Separating the cells: In this step, the PV cells are isolated using mechanical action. Most of the cells are reusable except a few.

Silicon recovery: The process is further refined to extract the remaining silicon. The recovered silicon materials are melted to manufacture new panels.

Another popularly used method of recycling is thin-film recycling. The entire panels move into a shredder, which will be cut down into small pieces of 3-4 mm. The materials will turn into a semi-liquid form due to constant hammering.

The materials are later separated through a dewatering process to ensure their purity of the materials. This method helps to separate 95% of the semiconductor material.

Benefits of solar panel recycling

Let us look at some of the benefits of recycling solar panels.

Reuse precious elements

Solar panels use certain rare earth elements such as gallium and indium. As the earth is limited in supplying these elements, simply burning them will cause them to run out. On the other hand, recycling solar panels help to reuse the components and thereby conserve their reserves on the earth.

Employment opportunities

Recycling solar panels helps create new employment opportunities in various fields to manage every step of the recycling process. This ranges from truck drivers, machinery operators and waste management authorities to logistic companies.

The economic value of materials within solar panels 

Solar panels contain small amounts of valuable materials such as copper, silver and gold. However, these materials will be permanently lost if solar panels are landfilled. Recycling helps extract these valuable elements and use them to build new products. In addition, other materials such as plastic, aluminium and glass can also be reused.

Help to support local economies

Many local businesses successfully reprocess solar PV material for their products. You can support these businesses by giving them access to your materials.

It helps to cut down the cost of a new installation

Recycled material from the retired solar panels helps compensate for the new installation’s cost. Studies have shown that the amount of money that could be recovered from solar panels by 2030 is a whopping 450 million dollars. This could help to fund the installation of 60 million new solar panels.

Earn goodwill 

Studies have shown that goodwill is an essential element that helps companies grow. By recycling the old panel, companies can boost their brand awareness and, in turn, and can, improve sales.

It helps to conserve the environment

By recycling the old panels, it can be made sure that old panels won’t end up in landfills. In addition, this will help prevent the harmful elements in the panels from seeping through the earth.

How much does it cost to recycle solar panels?

Research by Gavin Heath of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has indicated that in the US, the cost of recycling will cost you around 10-20 $ per module. 

Some countries also offer free of cost recycling for solar panels. 

Recycling problems in solar panels

In the next 20-30 years, a large number of panels may need to be recycled. However, the truth remains that although solar panels can be fully recycled, newer and higher-capacity recycling plants must be established to ensure that retired solar panels won’t end up in landfills.

Studies have shown that, at present, only 10% of solar panels in the US are recycled. However, hopefully, more solar recycling plants will soon be established to solve the issue.

Ways to reuse old panels

In addition to recycling old solar panels, you could also use them creatively for some of the following purposes.

1. Take it for a vacation

The good thing about solar panels is that even though they are old, they can generate power for a few hours. This means that if you carry your old panel on your truck while camping out, you could use it to generate power for lighting and cooking.

camping with solar panels
Photo by Newpowa on Unsplash

2. Make a table 

How many of you know that old solar panels can be converted into a table? The panels are pretty strong in their design, with an aluminium bottom. All you have to do is weld legs below it.

3. Fencing purpose

Instead of disposing of your solar panels, use them for fencing purposes. It is similar to making fences out of iron or good.

4. For green housing

A greenhouse is commonly made out of glass, making solar panels an excellent alternative to making a greenhouse as it is made up of glass. This will help ensure your plants remain warm during the cooler months.

5. For interior cooling

Solar panels help to retain a cool environment inside your living room. By placing the solar panels over the roof, you can make sure that you lower your room temperature and it also helps cut down the air conditioning cost.

solar panels for home
Photo by Margaret Polinder on Unsplash

6. Donate

If you have installed your new planes, donating your old ones will be better than throwing them in landfills. Old solar panels can also produce power for over a decade, and someone can definitely make good use of them.

Bottom Line

The article helps us understand how solar panels can and should be recycled at the end of their life. 

At present, the installed solar panels will have a lifespan of 20 to 30 years. Hopefully, it also means at the end of their life; the current recycling technology will be fully developed to handle such a large number of panels.

This will not only help to create new job opportunities but it is estimated that by the end of 2050,  the amount recovered by recycling the installed solar panels could be close to 11 billion. This will cover the cost of approximately 2 billion new panels!

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