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Solar energy is one of the most rapidly expanding renewable energy sources, but what happens to obsolete panels? Solar panels have an approximate thirty-year lifespan. With the increasing number of solar panels supplied and installed annually, it is only a matter of time before large quantities of panels reach the end of their useful life and must be discarded. The recycling of solar panels is still in its infancy, but as the renewable energy market continues to grow, recycling procedures will play an increasingly vital role.

Recycling solar panels is crucial for the future of solar energy.
Solar energy is economical, free of fossil fuels and emissions, and contributes to sustainability initiatives. However, it is crucial to note that after around 30 years, the energy production of many crystalline silicon solar panels will decline significantly. Therefore, it may be time to dispose of or replace them. Each year, a growing number of solar panels will end their useful lives; by 2050, some analysts predict there will be 80 million metric tonnes of solar panel waste. Even now, aging panels are becoming an issue since most of them wind up in landfills, where they can emit poisons that are hazardous to the environment and human health.

Solar panel recycling is beneficial to the environment.
As with any manufactured product, the disposal of solar panels is not eco-friendly. Heavy metals such as cadmium and lead in solar cells can create hazardous waste if they are not recycled or disposed of appropriately. In addition, irresponsibly discarded solar panels can end up in big landfills (as the recycling process for solar panels is still in its infancy). Recycling solar panels allow hazardous elements to be kept out of landfills and away from the environment.

Recycling solar panels reuse scarce, expensive materials
In addition to protecting the environment, recycling solar panels will have an economic impact. Gallium and indium, utilized in photovoltaic (PV) cells, are depleting in the environment over time. If we could recover these important elements, we could continue to use them for photovoltaic panels and other products while conserving the planet’s finite supply. Moreover, according to 2016 research by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), recycling solar modules might recover $15 billion by 2050. By recycling solar panels, we may conserve valuable materials that can be reintroduced into new panel products, relieving supply chain restrictions and reducing the price of solar energy.

What components of solar panels are recyclable?
Solar panels are constructed with the following components:

  • Silicon solar cells
  • Metal framing
  • Glass plates
  • Wires
  • Plexiglas

It is immediately apparent that many of the key components of PV panels can be recycled independently. Copper, glass, and metal wiring are all recyclable and reusable. Silicon cells, the most crucial component for producing energy, are a bit different. Although silicon wafers are not recyclable like glass and plastic, certain specialized recycling companies may reuse silicon cells by melting them down and recovering the silicon and other metals contained inside.

Technically, all solar panel components are recyclable with the proper procedure.

How do you recycle solar panels?
Reuse, mechanical recycling, and chemical recycling are the three primary techniques for recycling solar panels. Each technique has advantages and downsides, and they will probably all continue to play a role as the solar recycling business expands.

Reutilization or refurbishment of solar panels
Throughout this article, “recycling” refers to disassembling solar panels into their parts and reusing those materials elsewhere, including in other solar goods. However, there is also the concept of “reusing” solar panels, a separate form of solar waste solution.

Reuse is an attractive recycling solution for PV modules due to the minimal processing requirements of the goods. However, solar panels that have reached the end of their warranty period typically produce far less energy than when they were new, rendering them unsuitable for solar power generation. Used solar panels still have a use; however, this is not a long-term or sustainable solution to the impending solar panel waste problem.

Reusing solar panels makes sense for modest off-grid applications where it is not needed to generate electricity using the most advanced solar technology. It also applies to small, specialized solar chargers, such as those used to power electronic highway signs and e-bike stations. Used or refurbished solar panels cannot be utilized as components of larger solar arrays if they do not produce sufficient electricity.

Mechanical recycling
Mechanical recycling, one of the two “recycling” processes for solar panels, involves physically disassembling them into their component parts. On the most basic level, a mechanical recycling operation might remove an aluminum panel’s frame. The residual glass, silicon, wire, and different metals are then ground into “glass cullet” Glass cullet is occasionally used as a construction material.

Some businesses utilize mechanical techniques to get more from panels than the aluminum frame alone. We can utilize machines to physically separate the smallest components of solar panels, such as the intra-cell wiring and silicon itself; however, it requires more time and precision.

Recycling via chemical/thermal processes
Chemical (or thermal) recycling may be the most intriguing aspect of solar recycling. Mechanical recycling is constrained by how well a process can physically separate distinct components, whereas chemical recycling uses molecular reactions to separate the solar panel’s constituents. For instance, the French startup ROSI Solar utilizes a chemical method to separate the microscopic silver wires that transport power through the silicon cells of a functioning solar panel.

Management of solar waste in the United States versus Europe
In the United States, solar panel recycling is still in its infancy, whereas in Europe, it is a far more established aspect of the solar business.

The primary distinction between American and European solar recycling is the absence of governmental restrictions in the United States. Solar panel producers in Europe must recycle their panels once they have reached the end of their useful life. No similar federal regulations exist in the United States. However, several states have established legislation to control solar panel end-of-life management. For example, California has Universal Waste Management Regulations. We continue to observe poor panel recycling rates in the United States due to high prices, technological complexity, and the absence of a policy governing solar panel disposal.

Recycling firms for solar panels
So, who in the United States is engaged in solar recycling? Instead of requiring manufacturers to handle product recycling, several private companies are developing their procedures and technology. Here are a few to keep in mind:

EnergyBin provides solar sector businesses with solutions for repairing, resale and recycling solar panels. EnergyBin seeks to allow rapid and easy transactions in the “secondary market” across the solar supply chain by acting as the “middleman.”

We Recycle Solar
We Recycle Solar works directly with solar panel manufacturers and installers to properly dispose of their trash. They have two processing operations in the United States, located in New York and Arizona, and several other places internationally. We Recycle Solar uses a combination of mechanical and chemical processes to remove as many raw materials as possible from their panels.

Europe, unlike the United States, has a developed solar market. Due to government rules, European solar panel owners must recycle their panels when they are no longer in use. This has produced a market for panel recyclers, including Veolia.

Veolia collaborates with the non-profit PV Cycle to collect and recycle solar panels in Europe. In 2018, they established their first recycling plant, where robots sort solar panels into the glass, silicon, plastics, and metals.

QuestGreens allows you to research your solar alternatives
Although solar panel recycling is not yet widespread, solar energy remains an environmentally responsible investment. Using solar energy can reduce your monthly electric bill. Sign up for Questgreens to receive competent, pre-screened contractors, allowing you to initiate the solar installation process.