Prepare Now for Solar Panel Recycling

From Scott Carlberg

What do solar panels have to do with chickens and eggs? When it comes to recycling photo voltaic panels, more than it may seem.

Solar power to make electricity is increasing in the U.S., most in utility-scale (large) projects for the electric grid. Companies are also adding their own solar generating facilities. Residential installations follow. These figures from a solar trade association. (News source)

Using sunlight for electricity is one of the energy sources known as renewables that have made big strides in power generation. Solar panels are expected to be around for some time. They have decades of use in them according to the industry.

(From the National Renewable Energy Lab)

With the boom is solar panel installation having started some 10-15 years ago, it is time to look at what happens to the panels after their use. When solar panels become electronic waste, then what?  Good question from the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, that added, “Solar panels can be difficult to recycle. Extensive deconstruction is needed to isolate the raw materials and prep those materials for a useful second life. There is often a need to separate materials that have been sealed or infused together with powerful adhesives. This often requires additional labor.”

More than 90 percent of many photo voltaic (PV) panels can be recycled and made into new PV panels. Silicon, aluminum and glass are common materials in panels, but they can contain other metals. Knowing that is good news, planning for it is the next hurdle. (Check the recycling report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

It looks like there will be plenty of panels to recycle. “In 2017, the United States installed 10.6 GW of new solar energy. Using rough math (if every panel was 300 W), that’s 35.3 million new solar panels installed last year. In about 30 years, a wave of 35.3 million panels may reach the end of their lifespans, not counting the hundreds of millions of panels that flooded the U.S. market in the last decade that may need to be disposed of sooner.” (Source)

A solar recycling flyer – see link in our blog

All panels will not last their entire anticipated life, though. Some can be damaged in severe weather. The efficiency of others may diminish. Those will have to be handled earlier than their expected lifespans.

Recycling is done, in general, by removing the aluminum frames, getting at the glass, then getting at the plastic, silicon and other materials that may be there.

One place that has taken a state-level look at solar panel recycling – South Carolina. Check the online flyer about it, and it does note some companies that also work in North Carolina. North Carolina does not have a recycling program. There are some private companies that say they will recycle solar panels in the Carolinas.

The recycling value proposition of solar panels is a moving target as manufacturers change processes and materials. For instance, silver had been one material in panels, and while it was a tiny fraction of the panel, it was almost 50 percent of the recycled value. Manufacturers are finding ways to reduce the silver in systems, and the recycling value proposition can be potentially less attractive. (Source) The need to recycle becomes a societal need versus and economic proposition.

So, chickens and eggs and solar? There are not many solar panels to recycle now, so the recycling market is generally not there, but there will be a need as time goes on. Anticipating the processes and places to recycle solar panels now can save time and effort later.