October 16, 2020 Update: America’s Largest Solar Panel-Maker Leads the World in Panel Recycling–Recovering 95% of Materials
Solar panel recycling is important for the future of solar. Solar panels have a lifetime of about 30 years. With the increasing number of solar panels being sold and installed in the United States each year, it’s only a matter of time before high volumes of silicon solar panels are at the end of their useful life and have to be disposed of. Solar panel recycling is still at a very early stage, but as the market continues to grow, it will have an important part to play in the solar industry.
Solar energy is inexpensive and environmentally friendly – until your solar panels have reached the end of their lifetime. After about 30 years, many crystalline silicon solar panels will start having significant dips in energy production and it may be time to replace them or dispose of them entirely.
Besides environmental protection, recycling solar panels will be economically impactful as well. Some of the rare elements in photovoltaic (PV) cells like gallium and indium are being depleted from the environment over time. If we were able to recover those elements, we can conserve the limited amount available on earth and continue to use them for solar panels and other products. Furthermore, a 2016 study by the International Renewable Agency (IRENA) estimated that $15 billion could be recovered from recycling solar modules by the year 2050.
What parts of solar panels can be recycled?
Recycling solar panels can only be effective if the materials used to build them are able to be used again, 30 or more years later. Solar panels are made from several components, including:
- Silicon solar cells
- Metal framing
- Glass sheets
Solar panels are good for the environment, and recycling is coming
While solar panel recycling isn’t widely available in the U.S. for all of the components in solar panels, there’s still a little time before the number of panels needing to be recycled gets too high. Groups like SEIA and Recycle PV are doing important groundwork for the industry, but there’s more to do in years to come.
California is in the process of determining how to divert solar panels from landfills, which is where they currently go, at the end of their life. When taking a product back to be recycled, reused or biodegradable it’ll be designed and engineered to accommodate for infrastructure by creating it’s own circular supply-chain infrastructure.
It is better to design and engineer sustainable circular economy solutions than simply create systems that are just another form of indulgence paid for our environmental sins while doing nothing about them. More circular solutions need to be created to counter the criticism of, “If Solar Panels Are So Clean, Why Do They Produce So Much Toxic Waste?“