From Scott Carlberg

Solar panels have decades of life in them, so there is no immediate deluge of panels to recycle. 2050 is the year I have seen cited as when we will see lots of used panels to be managed.

Even then, it is hard to say how technology could extend the lives of panels with life still in them. “Solar cells made out of silicon currently provide a combination of high efficiency, low cost, and long lifetime. Modules are expected to last for 25 years or more, still producing more than 80% of their original power after this time.” (EIA)

If panels are not somehow rejuvenated in the field, we need to create a “PV circular economy;” methods to extract and re-use materials. That provides an economic base for EOL (End of Life) concerns and manages environmental issues from panels.

Types of panels explained by EIA

It is a business and technology path: 1) What can be recovered from silicon modules? 2) What recycling technologies are needed? 3) What are the potential revenues for different recycling scenarios? 4) what are the major challenges for different recycling scenarios? (Source)

We have a head start because we are already gaining experience. Think about it.

  • The average American buys a new phone about every 18 months. So 100-120 million phones discarded every year. Innovative technologies make up to 80% of materials in cell phones recycled and reused. (Source)
  • Smart HD TV sales were $148 billion in 2020. (Source)
  • New vehicle sales (even with combustion engines they are electronics on wheels) in February 2022 to 85,340 units. (Source)
  • Smoke detectors – electronics people hang on their ceilings – reached $1.80 billion in 2020. (Source)
  • Cell phones, laptops, and vehicles have options for recycling now. Compact fluorescent lights have drop-offs. Batteries – automobile and off-the-rack flashlight-type have drop-offs spots.

Already an entrepreneurial spirit is developing in solar panel recycling.

A company called We Recycle Solar has started. A story by Cronkite News (image left) in Arizona explains the approach:

“When a solar panel enters the warehouse, workers determine whether it can be refurbished or recycled. The wiring is removed from salvageable panels, and the glass and solar cells are separated from the aluminum frame.”

The remnants of the frameless panel are crushed and filtered. By the end of the process, the recycled panel becomes granular glass, plastics, adhesives, small pieces of silicon and bits of wiring and other debris to be processed and reused.”

From a consumer standpoint, were a solar field to be located in my city I would ask the installer or operator what its EOL plan is. Explain how it will be handled. Pretty straightforward, and a conversation that can really be positive.

Yep, my iTouch. Lots of life left.

We accept and manage electronics all day. For extended times, too. (Yes, I have and still use my iTouch.)

We (most all of us) take seriously proper recycling of what we use. So, do smart companies. After all – “The purpose of the business is to produce profitable solutions to the problems of people and planet, not profiting from producing problems.” That is from a business professor. He’s right.

Solar panels are another form of electronics that benefit society. Hard work has been done to get solar recycling started and more work will be done to make it even better.