Solar Panel Recycling

Anyone who works in the solar industry is intimately aware of the benefits solar energy provides to communities nationwide. Clean, renewable energy bolsters local economies, helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and requires little maintenance over the lifespan of the investment compared to other forms of energy generation. What many industry professionals are unaware of is what pros and cons exist for solar modules at the end of their useful life.

At the beginning of 2018, the United States deployed 53GW of solar capacity. Assuming the average wattage of each solar module installed was 250W, the total weight of all panels deployed equals 89 billion pounds or 44.5 million tons. That’s the equivalent weight of 122 Empire State Buildings in solar modules installed nationwide.

For an industry that prides itself on sustainability, there must be a focus on recycling at the end of a solar project’s lifespan so that landfills don’t overflow with panels. As things currently stand, solar panel recycling is not a huge issue in the US because a vast majority of installations have occurred in the past ten years; nevertheless, the market need for developed recyclers will only increase over time. In fact, a 2016 study by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates the recyclable materials in old solar modules will be worth $15 billion in recoverable assets by the year 2050.

Source: GreenMatch.com
Source: GreenMatch.com

How are they recycled?

So, can solar panels be recycled? The short answer is yes. Silicon solar modules are primarily composed of glass, plastic, and aluminum, three materials that are recycled in mass quantities.

Despite the recyclability of the modules, the process by which materials are separated can be tedious and requires advanced machinery. Here are the main steps involved in successfully recycling a silicon module:

  1. Removing the aluminum frame (100% reusable).
  2. Separating the glass along a conveyor belt (95% reusable).
  3. Thermal processing at 500 degrees Celsius.
    • This allows for the evaporation of small plastic components and allows the cells to be easily separated.
  4. Etching away silicon wafers and smelting them into reusable slabs (85% reusable).

Because many European nations installed greater PV capacities in the 1990s, the solar PV module recycling market is steadily maturing. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) of the European Union helped found a member-based organization called PV Cycle to build out a robust recycling infrastructure. Here’s a look inside one of their plants:

Thus, the US market has plenty to learn from their European counterparts when it comes to PV module recycling. While Washington became the first state to pass a solar product stewardship law last year, more states will have to join this initiative to place greater pressure on manufacturers to develop recycling programs.

It may seem easy to kick the can down the road when it comes to PV module recycling. After all, these solar panels often last well beyond their 25-year lifespan and continue to negate greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, the long-term success of our industry relies on successfully recovering the raw materials that produce solar modules. If you anticipate your solar company to thrive for the next two decades, it’s time to begin thinking about our responsibility to ensure modules stay out of our nation’s landfills.

Further Reading:

Comments

Max commented 2 years 12 months ago

I have the infrastructure to reuse and refurbish old panels in the middle east for a second life-cycle.
Has anyone suggestions where I can get larger amounts of panels that would otherwise go to landfill/be shredded?

Thanks a lot,
Max

Ammad Waseem commented 2 years 7 months ago

Hey Max, happy to hear that you have infrastructure to refurbish PV Module, i want to learn that how you establish this infrastructure. I am from Pakistan interested to establish this infrastructure plz help me in this process. My email is ammad.case@gmail.com.

Sérgio Mesquita Jr commented 2 years 6 months ago

Hi Max, please get in touch with me as I am also interested in knowing more about your business regarding recycled solar panels
email me at: sergio.mesquitajr@hotmail.com

Dinesh commented 2 years 3 months ago

Hi Max,

Hope you are doing well 🙂.

I am vey much interested in solar modules recycling process and want to build an infrastructure .
So I need your help in this .
Please reach out to me on esolution139@gmail.com.

Thanks
Dinesh

Chris commented 2 years 3 months ago

Great article and we are in a new phase of industry. Like you said many panels are still new and have not reached end of life yet. The next 10 years will really show us what companies are here to stay in the solar panel recycling industry. One company that has a real solid understanding of solar panel recycling on the commercial side is werecyclesolar com I like them because they can really figure out the best situation for your situation, but again they are commercial. Seems most people are looking for help on the residential side. Do you have any good companies for the res side of things? Thanks in advance!

Thank you for your comments and suggestions. One organization that we point to is PVCycle.org 

Best of luck and let us know how it goes. Thanks again.

John M Endres commented 2 years 1 month ago

Why does the silicon from end-of-life solar panels need to be "smelted". Silicon is extracted from silicon dioxide via the carbo-thermic smelting process to obtain the relatively pure (97-99%) merallurgical-grade silicon (which is further purified or refined to approx 99.9999% purity). So, why does the silicon need to be re-smelted via the highly polluting and GHG-emitting carbo-thermic smelting process?

Tibin commented 2 years 1 month ago

Hi Max,
I work for a reputable solar company and I would like to know more about your recycling plant, as I have modules to sell and Need a recycling partner . My email Id is tibinthomasfrancis@gmail.com
Thanks
Tibin Thomas

Peter Klitou commented 2 years ago

We have damaged/broken solar panels available in Europe for recycling. Please contact me if you can offer solution.

Harald commented 2 years ago

John M Endres commented 2 weeks 4 days ago
Why does the silicon from end-of-life solar panels need to be "smelted". Silicon is extracted from silicon dioxide via the carbo-thermic smelting process to obtain the relatively pure (97-99%) merallurgical-grade silicon (which is further purified or refined to approx 99.9999% purity). So, why does the silicon need to be re-smelted via the highly polluting and GHG-emitting carbo-thermic smelting process?

Answer to John's comment: Unfortunately none of the commercial recycling processes achieve mono material fractions. This means the glass fraction is "contaminated" by silicon or metal pieces or in other words "low value glass". Glass wool or similar products are made from this low value glass, but not the original glass product. Although people call this process recycling, it is rather downcycling. This applies to all other fractions like silicon, too. Some materials are not even extracted, e.g. silver (approximately 10g/panel) or lead. The glass wool for thermal insulation purposes is maybe contaminated by lead. The development of real recycling processes is still on-going, but may take a few years to become commercially available.

Paul Choi commented 1 year 11 months ago

Hello Max and interested persons,
We are very seriously looking for recycling processing system in Australia and Korea/Japan.
Can you please contact me for more discussion on the system to establish at the locations?

As well, we are looking for the finished/crashed materials for sales from used solar panels on the base of long-term contract.
Can you please advise me the availability for sales into overseas market?

My best contact for further discussion is pkmining@gmail.com.

Look forward to hearing from you. regards, Paul

Laankwap Bala commented 1 year 7 months ago

Hi Max, I’m very interested in knowing the requirements and how to go about setting up the infrastructure for the reuse of solar panels I would appreciate it if you communicate with me through the email balalaaankwap17@gmail.com

Jorge Colilles commented 1 year 7 months ago

Hi everyone, I am a college student doing a research about the solar panels recycling industry. Can anyone reach out me at jorge009ct@gmail.com to solve some questions for my work. Tank you very much

Jorge Costa commented 11 months 2 weeks ago

Hi, Guys.
I'm really interested in this topic. Because i work in a company and our main business is sell and install solar PV. Now my mains concern is recycle the obsolete components.
So if some of you can give me more information about this it will be grate.
Thanks.

Wilson de Oliveira commented 3 months ago

I'm Brazilian, and in recent years solar energy has been on the rise in Brazil and there is still no company recycling these plates. Most companies stock old license plates. How can I explore this market? What structure do I need to start this work?
Thank you for any information.