Solar energy is gaining popularity as a clean energy source. However, what happens to the old panels?
Most solar panels have a lifespan of up to 30 years. As more are marketed and installed across the United States, a significant portion will reach the end of their useful lives and require disposal.
Recycling procedures for solar panels are still in their early stages, but they will become increasingly crucial as this form of renewable energy grows.
The Importance of Solar Panel Recycling
Solar power is a popular choice for its environmental benefits and cost savings. However, after around 30 years, the energy output of many crystalline silicon solar panels will noticeably decline, requiring disposal or replacement. Every year, more panels reach the end of their useful lives, and by 2050, experts predict that 80 million metric tons of used solar panels will have been disposed of.
Obsolete panels are already a concern as most are dumped in landfills, where they can release pollutants harmful to the environment and people.
Helping the Environment
As with any manufactured items, the disposal of solar panels can have negative environmental impacts. Solar cells that contain heavy metals like cadmium and lead can become hazardous waste if not disposed of or recycled properly. Additionally, due to the early stage of the panel recycling process, panels that are irresponsibly discarded can end up in massive landfills. Recycling solar panels can prevent obsolete panels from accumulating in landfills, thus protecting the environment.
Repurposing Expensive and Rare Elements
In addition to environmental conservation, recycling obsolete solar panels can have significant economic benefits. As photovoltaic (PV) cells are increasingly produced, the demand for rare elements like indium and gallium, which are used in the cells, also grows. By retrieving these valuable resources through recycling, we can take full advantage of their finite supply and continue to use them in PV panels and a variety of other products.
Moreover, recycling solar modules can result in recovering up to $15 billion by 2050, according to a 2016 study conducted by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). By reusing and recycling solar panels, we can preserve precious solar module components, enhance production capabilities, and reduce the overall cost of solar energy.
Recyclable Parts of Solar Panels
Solar panels are composed of several different parts, such as Plexiglas, wires, glass sheets, metal framing, and silicon solar cells.
It is evident that many of the primary elements of PV panels are recyclable, such as metal, glass, and copper wiring that can be reused and recycled.
On the other hand, the situation is slightly different with silicon cells, which are the most important component for generating power. Though silicon wafers cannot be recycled in the same way as glass or plastic, some specialized recycling companies can recycle silicon cells and retrieve the silicon and other metals within them.
Technically, every component of a solar panel can be recycled provided that the appropriate processes are used.
Solar Panel Recycling Methods
Solar panel recycling typically involves three primary techniques: reuse, chemical recycling, and mechanical recycling. Each method has its pros and cons, and it is likely that every process will find a place in the burgeoning solar recycling market.
Reusing Solar Panels
Previously, we referred to the process of dismantling solar panels to reuse their individual components as "recycling." However, the concept of reusing solar panels offers an alternative method for addressing solar waste.
Since reusing solar panel components requires little processing, it is an attractive approach to PV recycling. However, solar panels often generate much less energy than they did when new after their warranty expires, making them largely useless for generating solar power. Secondhand solar panels still have a market, but this is not a sustainable solution to the inevitable waste issue.
Reusing solar panels is ideal for small, off-grid applications where generating electricity as efficiently as possible is not imperative. This approach is also suitable for specialized solar chargers, such as those used to power electronic highway signs or recharge e-bikes. However, refurbished or previously used solar panels cannot belong to larger solar modules because they cannot produce sufficient electricity.
The first of the actual "recycling" processes for solar panels is mechanical recycling, which involves physically breaking down the panels into their various components. The aluminum frame can be stripped away in the most basic mechanical recycling procedure. Glass, wire, silicon, and other metals that cannot be reused are crushed into a mixture called "glass cullet." Glass cullet is commonly used in construction and building.
Some companies use mechanical techniques to extract more useful components from panel frames than just aluminum. Smaller components of solar panels, such as the silicon or intra-cell wiring, can also be physically separated using machines, but this requires more time and precision.
Chemical recycling, also known as thermal recycling, is one of the most promising areas of solar recycling. Chemical recycling uses molecular-level processes to separate the materials in a solar panel, while mechanical recycling is limited by the degree to which a process can physically separate various components.
ROSI Solar, a French startup, uses a chemical method to remove microscopic silver wires that transfer power through silicon cells in a functioning solar panel.
Alternative Uses for Old Solar Panels
Powering Residences with Low Energy Needs
The average monthly power consumption of a typical American home is approximately 877 kWh. When solar panels are no longer capable of producing that amount of energy, they need not be immediately discarded. Instead, they can be donated to a nonprofit organization that refurbishes old solar panels for use in community service. For such projects, any amount of energy is invaluable.
These donated solar panels frequently make their way to countries like Mexico and other parts of Central America, where homes consume as little as 500 kWh of electricity per year. In various African countries, monthly electricity consumption can be under 100 kWh per year. Even older solar panels can supply enough energy to power homes, machinery, and devices in areas where energy consumption is significantly lower than in the average American home.
Even if your solar panels are not as efficient as they used to be, they can still serve a useful purpose. If you are ingenious or handy, you can use old solar panels for various DIY projects, including:
Glass is used in both solar panels and greenhouses. You may combine the concepts to construct a system that keeps your plants warm throughout the colder months.
Older solar panels can be a great way to generate electricity when you're far away from the power grid, especially if you link the panels to a portable solar generator.
Depending on your abilities and the amount of time you have, you could repurpose obsolete PV panels into a wide range of furniture and art pieces.
Powering Smaller Spaces
You can still put their electricity to good use in other areas even if your solar panels are not producing enough energy to power your entire home. Used solar panels are a common source of energy for outbuildings such as garages, cabins, playhouses, and even tiny homes.
Disconnecting these areas from the national grid is an excellent way to reduce energy costs and increase the availability of useful applications and features.
The Current Solar Panel Recycling Picture In The US
Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and alternative energy sources in general, are in extremely high demand. The United States achieved 100 GWdc (Gigawatts) of total solar power capacity in the first quarter of 2021. In other words, the country has managed to double its solar energy capacity within 4 years. As per forecasts, there will be an additional 160 GW added to the market in the next five years.
This sustained growth is reflective of a crucial step in the fight against climate change before it hits a critical tipping point. Many proponents of green energy feel that the next step toward a greener future should involve taking steps to improve the tech and rates of solar panel recycling, to prevent the disposal of obsolete panels in landfills. If the solar panels in the US are not effectively recycled, the present solar panel generation could add up to a million tons of wastage by the end of this decade.
Today's solar panels are more inexpensive and dependable than ever before, with a typical lifespan already exceeding 25 years and efficiencies approaching 25%. Hence, if you have only recently started using solar energy, you will not have to worry about disposing off your panels for many years to come.
Improvements in PV Recycling Tech The tech for solar panel recycling has advanced and become cheaper over the past decade as industry leaders work to better the process.
The idea is to uncover future usefulness and solve some of the existing solar panel recycling issues by concentrating on components that currently unrecyclable, such as tin, lead, and other heavy metals.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for instance, has started looking at developing such an integrated, high-value recycling system. A primary goal of the method is the complete and highly pure recovery of all starting materials and components. Scientists, supporters of solar panels, and environmentalists all endorse this concept. Although it's still in the works, this technology has the potential to completely eliminate the issue of recycling old solar panels.
Solar Panel Recycling: Key to Maximizing Sustainability
Advancements are being made in the solar industry to improve the procedures for recycling solar panels, despite the fact that the existing methods are not easy or comfortable. The average lifespan of a solar panel is 25 to 30 years, giving the industry ample time to develop improvements before the majority of panels reach the end of their useful life and no longer contribute to the planet's energy needs.
For those seeking recyclable portable solar panel options, our wide range of options can meet your needs. We offer various types of portable solar panels, generators, and kits made entirely of recyclable materials and can help you choose one based on your location and budget.