As more families and businesses seek environmentally friendly energy alternatives, more solar panels have been produced and installed into homes and buildings as a clean energy source. However, with more panels in use, the more material waste there will be when they are no longer usable. Therefore, it is vital for solar panel owners to learn about the importance of recycling them and the process itself so they can continue to be environmentally friendly.
Why is Solar Panel Recycling Environmentally Friendly?
Many solar panels have an average life expectancy of around 30 years. Given the recent boom in panel purchases over the past few decades, many predict that there will be roughly 78 million tons of raw materials from these aged panels by 2050. As a result, there will be a growing need to recycle unusable panels in the coming decades, so this vast amount of resources does not go to waste.
Reusing the immense amount of solar panel waste will help save billions of dollars globally, but that isn’t the only financial advantage. Solar panel recycling benefits the environment by preventing the depletion of rare resources. Elements such as indium and gallium are not commonly found and can be recovered from broken panels for use in new ones. Recycling such valuable materials will help prevent supply chains from becoming constrained and lowers the cost of panels in turn.
If solar panels are disposed of without extracting their recyclable materials, then they can end up in landfills. Solar panels can contain toxic materials, such as lead and cadmium, which are harmful to the health of both humans and the environment. Recycling these resources and properly disposing of unusable materials will ensure that landfills stay empty and ecosystems are not exposed to such dangerous toxins.
What Solar Panel Components Are Recycled?
Many of the materials used in solar panels can be recycled for use in new panels. While there are a variety of panels available on the market, with crystalline silicon being one of the most common types, here are some of the resources that can be preserved with solar panel recycling:
- Aluminum from their frames
- Glass from their sheets
- Silicon used in their semiconductors
- The plastic used for the junction box
- Copper from the wires
- Tin and other metals
How Are Solar Panels Recycled?
Although solar panel recycling is a relatively new industry, growth in the sector is increasing. Certain companies have emerged over the years to operate recycling programs and several manufacturers in the solar industry own recycling facilities. However, the process of solar panel recycling can be challenging depending on the circumstances.
The two primary types of recycling are mechanical and chemical. With mechanical, the solar panel components are taken apart physically, such as removing the frame from the wires and taking apart the junction box. Chemical recycling is a far more complicated procedure, as separating and purifying the individual materials must be done on a molecular level using thermal processes or similar methods. In summary, the elements and materials used to make solar panels can be recycled for future use, but the process has many steps and takes time.
Can Solar Panels Be Refurbished?
An alternative to breaking down solar panels entirely is to refurbish them and reuse them elsewhere. While this recycling method is not as time-consuming or complex as chemical recycling, the older panels won’t be as efficient at producing energy. Additionally, they must adhere to regulatory considerations regarding their use in electrical grid connections due to fire and building codes.
As a result, many refurbished solar panels are implemented in ways that don’t involve connection to a grid, such as charging electric bikes or powering remote locations. Further, their reduced efficiency means they are commonly utilized in situations where their usage isn’t essential, like in smaller-scale solar chargers or signs on the highway.