Is Solar Panel Recycling Worth It?

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Author – Wizer Energy

You may be working in the solar power industry or just use the technology to power your home, one thing is for sure; you are keenly aware of the advantages solar energy has for the environment. These benefits include a reduced household carbon footprint and lower air pollution and better power backup.

According to a study, the US commissioned enough solar panels to power 22 million homes in FY2022. Assuming each of these homes requires three solar panels, the total number of modules installed would be 66 million units.

Solar panels have a relatively long lifespan of 25-30 years, but it is crucial to consider what happens when these equipment reach the end of their useful life. In an industry that prides itself on sustainability, recycling must be prioritized to ensure these solar panels don’t get thrown into landfills at the end of their lifespan. Further, since consumers pay a high price for purchasing these solar panels, they would want to resell them to a recycler to get a good deal.

What Causes Solar Panels Deterioration?

As with most technologies, solar panels generate less electricity over time, which is known as the ‘degradation rate’. The degradation of solar panels occurs as a result of exposure to adverse weather conditions and UV rays. Exposure to these elements over time can cause cracks in the silicon and force electronics to warp, resulting in reduced output from solar panels.

The average degradation rate of a solar panel is about 0.5% annually. With an average degradation rate of 0.5% annually, your solar panel should still generate about 90% of its original power output after 20 years, which is not a massive difference in the grand scheme of things.

How to Dispose Of Old Solar Panels

There are three options for disposing of old solar panels:

  1. Send them to landfills
  2. Recycle the materials
  3. Reuse as is or refurbished

When solar panels no longer generate enough electricity, most end up in landfills. Unfortunately, these electricity-generating modules contain harmful chemicals, such as lead, that could cause toxic pollution if released into the environment. However, they also contain valuable materials that manufacturers can use to produce new solar cells. So, landfills should not be considered as an option for disposing solar panels.

Solar panel recycling and reuse are the two better options for disposing of out-of-commission solar panels. Here is a breakdown:

Solar Panel Recycling

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Recycling old solar panels involves breaking them down and using the parts for manufacturing new panels. According to Solar Panel Recycling Market Report 2022, the size of the global solar panel recycling market reached $110 million in 2021.

Unfortunately, recycling is a relatively complicated process because of the high cost of breaking down materials. But recycling old solar panels can no longer be considered an afterthought: it is both an economic opportunity and a necessity to protect the environment.

Worn-out and old solar panels are brought to a specialized e-waste recycling facility, where experts remove the frames and junction boxes, then crush, shred and mill the rest of the module. At the end of the process, they can recover glass, aluminum and copper and dispose of the other materials, such as silicon cells, through various methods, including incineration. The recovered materials are used in the manufacture of new panels.

Challenges in Solar Panel Recycling

Recycling solar panels is an effective way to reclaim valuable raw materials for remanufacturing, but a few barriers may make the process relatively challenging.

  • High cost – Although recycling is one of the most sustainable ways to deal with old solar panels, the cost of the whole process exceeds that of disposing of them in a landfill or reusing them. It is a complex process involving many steps necessary to break down the solar modules into individual materials. That results in a costly process that many manufacturers deem unnecessary.
  • Lack of incentives – Another significant challenge to solar panel recycling is the lack of regulations. Without regulations, there is no practical way to incentivize consumers and manufacturers to dispose of old solar panels correctly. Luckily, a few countries around the globe classify these old modules as hazardous waste, which has helped ensure a few specific materials are recycled, minimizing their effect on the environment.
  • Difficulty in extracting materials – Solar panels contain a wide range of materials such as silicon, aluminium and other metals. Although they are recyclable, extracting each of these materials from old solar panels is a relatively complex process, which deters many recyclers from trying it. However, it is critical to recover these materials to minimize the need to mine new supplies and conserve the limited amounts.

Reusing Solar Panels

Reusing and upcycling old solar panels is the best way to keep them out of landfills. Reusing these old solar modules guarantees them a second life generating electricity at a different location.

Unfortunately, the second-hand market for solar panels hasn’t yet taken off. Further, there are a few regulatory considerations (related to fire, building and electrical codes) that you must take into account before reusing them. Luckily, there are other ways to repurpose and reuse old solar panels while adhering to regulatory requirements.

If you have an old solar panel, you can use it as a portable power station for camping. Alternatively, you can turn the panels into furniture if you are willing to follow a few DIY procedures. A tabletop made of an old solar panel can be an innovative and stylish addition to your outdoor spaces.

What is the Best Way to Dispose of Solar Panels?

As it stands, reusing old solar modules is the most efficient way to ensure the sustainability of solar energy. However, when reusing isn’t possible, recycling is the second best option to ensure that hazardous wastes don’t harm the environment.

Solar panel manufacturers can also contribute to efforts to protect the environment by creating PV designs that degrade less over time and are easy to repair and recycle. With such an approach, it will become easier to conserve limited resources and promote genuinely clean solar energy production in the future.

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