All of the world’s PV module manufacturers have produced more than a billion solar panels since the inception of the solar energy industry. In the last quarter of 2020, we already have approximately 750 GW (and growing) of operating solar plants across different places worldwide. This feat has undoubtedly helped in reducing our carbon footprint significantly.
However, there remains the potential impact of solar panel waste on the environment. As the looming concerns of solar module wastes grow, you would be asking this question: Can we recycle a solar panel?
In this article, we will discuss how recyclable solar modules are and why repurposing them adds to the reasons to use solar energy. You may also share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Are Solar Panels Recyclable?
Solar modules are composed of primarily recyclable materials. It means solar panel recycling is possible to do. The issue concerning end-of-life solar modules can be manageable if we properly repurpose and reuse them.
Fortunately, solar panel recycling is getting more attention now than ever. More and more scientists and engineers are making significant innovations in managing solar PV module waste appropriately. Many people are also making ways to reuse and recycle solar panels even after their working life has ended.
The Problem: Solar Panel Waste
Mainstream media have reiterated over and over again that the more solar panels we manufacture, the more solar panel waste we produce. It is true in a sense that overproduction of anything with only a few years of usefulness will eventually face this problem.
Moreover, this issue requires much attention as early as possible to avoid its worst environmental effects.
For example, the Environment Ministry of Japan forecast that their country’s solar panel waste will reach 100k tons in 2031. And by the end of 2040, they are expecting to produce around 800k tons of trash from solar PV modules, equivalent to almost 41 million solar modules in total. (Source: Japan tries to chip away at mountain of disused solar panels)
As the demand for renewable energy increases, more people are also attracted to installing solar power systems. As a result, more companies are putting up factories to manufacture these solar modules.
The price of solar panels has also gone down due to the increasing number of companies competing in the market. It has created a substantial push towards installing mega solar projects with millions of individual modules operating under the sun.
Then, after 3 to 4 decades, this could add to the surmounting solar panel waste that we already have. But, the question is: Where do old photovoltaic modules go when they “die”? We definitely wouldn’t want them to end up in the landfills.
How Long Do Solar Panels Last?
Most solar panels have been tested and seen to have up to 30 years of working life on average. You might notice their degradation at the end of its 1st year with the decrease of its efficiency by 1-2%.
The majority of solar panel manufacturers give a performance warranty that by the end of 20 years, you will still get at least 80% of its rated output.
By the end of its useful years, most solar plant owners would still want to utilize their solar modules. Considering they might still perform at 50-75% of its rated power, some people may defer their disposal for a few more years.
However, since solar panel technology is rapidly growing, replacing the old PV modules with newer and more efficient ones will benefit. It will allow more solar energy to be generated, saving money or space for the plant owner.
Why Shouldn’t We Neglect Solar Panel Waste?
Completely neglecting the issue of solar panel waste will eventually have a catastrophic result for the environment. Since solar panels will be useful for 20 to 30 years, it means millions of solar modules will need to be disposed of in the next few decades from now.
Although it is not a short period, it nevertheless begs all our attention. Plans for waste management and recycling should be in place as early as possible.
Here are some of the reasons why we should not ignore this impending issue.
- Mismanagement of solar panel waste could pollute our lands, rivers, and oceans.
- Solar panel wastes can cause harm to people and animals.
- Lead and cadmium leaking from solar cells can affect plants and animals.
- Solar plants with mismanaged solar panel waste pose a safety hazard to people.
- We are not talking about thousands of disused solar panels but in millions of quantities.
Proper planning and comprehensive standards on handling solar panel waste should be in place as soon as possible.
Fortunately, scientists and engineers have always been proactive to things that pertain to the sustainability of the solar energy industry, including solar panel waste management. More companies have also joined this campaign by adding recycling facilities to help solve this issue.
The Solution: Solar Panel Recycling
Recycling means using something again, which was deemed to have little to no value or usefulness anymore. We do it with our glass bottles, plastic cups, papers, and a lot more different types of materials. So, why not for our PV modules?
Applying this concept to end-of-life solar panels will significantly impact our environment’s future.
While it is true that we can’t make all of the disused solar panels into new office tables, there are still various ways to recycle them. Indeed, solar panel recycling is the simplest way to solve solar panel waste issues.
“Reverence for the past and responsibility for the future provide the right approach to life.”
How Do We Recycle Solar Panels?
Now that we know what to do regarding the impending solar panel waste issue, we need to know where to start. Here is a list of the basic ideas for PV module recycling.
- It has glass layers that can be melted and be used again the same way we recycle glass bottles.
- Remove and recycle the solar panel’s frame, which is made out of aluminum.
- Its cables, which have copper wires, are also recyclable.
- When the PV module is still intact, they could be repurposed as a table.
- Some old solar panels that still gives out a fraction of its peak power can be donated to communities.
How Do Recycling Companies Process Solar Panels?
Many solar panel recycling companies have their way of processing old photovoltaic modules. It may involve collecting, disassembling, and segregating each of its materials. Here are some of the common steps on how they recycle end-of-life PV modules.
1. Collection or Drop-Off
The first step is usually the collection of the old PV modules. Some companies have a fleet of trucks that can contain tons of solar panels.
They will usually collect it from the solar plants about to replace their PV modules or dispose of them. Once they receive a call or a message from the solar plant owner, they will dispatch their fleet to collect these modules.
2. Moving or Transporting to the Recycling Facility
Once the trucks are loaded with the old solar panels, they will be transported to the company’s recycling facility. From here on out, the PV modules will be checked and cleaned if necessary.
This will be the start of the facility processes within the recycling company.
3. Separation of Metal Frames
After checking and cleaning, these solar panels will then be transferred to another process stream. It will now be subjected to the removal of its metallic frames.
Most solar panels now have aluminum frames that give structural stability to the module. These frames will then be removed and sorted into another process stream to be recycled.
4. Removal of the Junction Boxes and Cables
After removing the metal frames, we will be left with the solar cells, glass, junction boxes, and cables. The next step will be the removal of junction boxes and cables from the PV module.
A machine will do this process in the facility that will efficiently and safely detach these components. Once they are sorted, they will then be taken immediately for recycling.
5. Separation of PV Module Glass
The PV module will be processed further after the removal of frames, cables, and junction boxes. This time, the PV module glass will be removed.
Many solar panel recycling companies use advanced technologies to safely separate their glass from the solar cells and EVA backplates. By deploying state-of-the-art sorting technology, PV module glass will easily be recycled.
6. Recovery of Other Valuable Materials
This step involves etching away the silicon wafers, copper, and silver metals. These materials comprise 5-10% of the whole PV module. Once these are recovered, they will immediately be processed for recycling. In some cases, they could still be used again as raw materials for new solar panels.
Are Solar Panels Biodegradable?
Solar panels are composed chiefly of glass, vinyl, aluminum, and other metals, which do not quickly decompose. So, we could say that solar modules are non-biodegradable materials.
A more in-depth article about what materials comprise a solar PV module could be read in our previous blog post. If you want to learn more about this topic, you may want to check it out.
Conclusion: Solar Panel Recycling Is The Way
By the end of their lifespans, mono facial or bifacial solar panels alike will deteriorate and be disposed of ultimately. This is the reality of everything exposed to the sun’s heat for such a long time, especially PV modules.
The good thing is that more companies are taking the initiative to create processes to recycle solar panels. To avoid filling our landfills with dead solar modules, repurposing them is the key. This way, we can help create a more sustainable future and make solar technology cleaner and greener. It may not be the simplest means, but it is the way.
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