A Complete Guide to Solar Panel Recycling
February 11, 2022
Many Americans are investing in solar power to reduce their dependence on oil and fossil fuels as the impacts of climate change become increasingly dire. Fortunately, people know the benefits of solar energy now more than ever.
Most people know that solar power is an energy alternative that doesn’t produce pollution or emit greenhouse gases after panel installation.
However, many people aren’t so familiar with solar panel recycling. Solar energy offers many benefits to the environment, but if people don’t properly recycle solar panels, those panels end up in landfills.
Are Solar Panels Bad for the Environment?
Solar energy is an abundant resource capable of generating clean, sustainable electricity. When done correctly, solar panels provide energy without contributing to pollution and global warming.
For one, no global emissions are associated with generating electricity through solar energy. Going solar avoids harmful environmental impacts just as much as it promotes positive environmental effects.
However, the main environmental concerns regarding solar panels come down to land and water use.
Are Solar Panels Toxic?
The manufacturing of solar panels does involve the use of hazardous chemicals. However, so long as solar panel manufacturers comply with U.S. safety laws, workers will remain safe throughout the production process.
However, it’s still important to take the necessary precautions when recycling solar panels. This prevents toxic materials from potentially harming the environment.
Fortunately, there are many financial incentives for solar panel manufacturers to follow the proper recycling procedures. Overall, solar panels benefit the environment much more than they endanger it.
Are Solar Panels Recyclable?
Yes, they are! The option to recycle solar panels is possible and available for those looking to discard panels responsibly.
Most of the materials contained in solar panels are recyclable, including glass, plastic, aluminum, silicon and metal. However, the solar panel recycling process can be complex, regardless of how much people encourage it, such as through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Luckily, new and improved methods for recycling solar panels are currently in research and development.
The Importance of Solar Panel Recycling
Recycling solar panels is important for two main reasons: reducing hazardous landfill waste and reclaiming valuable materials. The more components we can recycle, the less waste will end up in landfills.
Despite the fact that most solar panel materials are recyclable, many U.S. companies don’t recycle their solar panel waste. This leads to the buildup of millions of tons of solar panel waste.
Many of these raw materials are recoverable and highly valuable, such as selenium, germanium, tellurium, cadmium, gallium and indium. And when recycled, they can produce new panels to further reduce material consumption in the future.
In fact, the International Renewable Energy Agency predicts that the global value of recycled raw materials from old solar panels will reach $450 million by 2030.
This amount roughly equals the cost to produce 60 million new solar panels, which makes solar panel recycling more vital than ever.
The Current State of Solar Panel Recycling
There is a huge demand for clean energy in the U.S. The nation had more than 100 gigawatts of installed solar power capacity at the beginning of 2021.
However, if the U.S. doesn’t improve its methods for recycling solar panel materials, much of that growth may become moot. We’ll only continue to add to our landfill waste if we don’t get better at recycling solar panels.
We must improve the rate at which we recycle solar panels. But we must also continue to develop innovative solar panel recycling methods to keep as many materials as possible out of landfills.
Fortunately, the life span of solar panels is 25 to 30 years. Therefore, the industry should aim to create better solar panel recycling technologies by the time current panels reach the end of their life span.
[Related: Five Best and Worst States for Solar in 2021]
How to Recycle Solar Panels
Most solar panels in the U.S. get recycled at glass recycling facilities. Unfortunately, these facilities recycle only the glass and sometimes only the metal frames — the other materials end up in landfills.
One option is to list the details of your type of solar panels online and give them to someone who can repurpose them. Another option is to reach out to companies that specialize in recycling solar panels. We’ve included resources to a few of these companies in the next section.
[Related: How Many Solar Panels Do You Need for EVs?]
Solar Panel Recycling Companies
First Solar uses a recycling process that recovers about 90% of the materials in solar panels. Its facilities are located in the U.S., Germany and Malaysia. First Solar’s process is as convenient as it is effective.
We Recycle Solar offers more comprehensive recycling solutions for large-scale companies and manufacturers. The company also complies with panel removal regulations. Both homeowners and business owners benefit from the program.
Recycle PV provides a simple and effective method for the removal and recycling of old solar panels. In fact, Recycle PV has a recovery rate of 90%, which positions it as a leader in solar waste management.
[Related: How Solar Panels Affect Home Insurance]
How Solar Panels Are Recycled
There are two main methods for solar panel recycling. One option is using chemicals and thermal energy. The other is mechanical recycling.
Chemical recycling requires a combination of heat and chemical treatments to separate solar panels’ chemical components and then recover the silicon they contain.
This process requires the use of hazardous gases, which makes it challenging for commercial use.
Mechanical recycling is a much simpler process than chemical recycling. This process involves taking apart solar panels and recycling each component separately.
From there, machines crush the materials into a sand-like consistency. Then, magnets remove any valuable metals from the other materials.
[Related: How Do Solar Panels Work?]
Solar Panel Reuse: Can You Reuse Solar Panels?
Yes, you can reuse solar panels.
It’s often more economical to reuse or repurpose your old solar panels rather than recycle them. This is because reusing solar panels requires even less processing than recycling.
The average household uses 893 kWh of electricity every month. Solar panels that are 20 to 30 years old simply can’t provide that amount of power. But that doesn’t mean you should rush to get rid of them.
Older, reused and low-efficiency solar panels are still effective for small-scale solar power needs. They can benefit off-grid systems and solar charging devices, and they can even illuminate street signs.
Consider donating your older solar panels to a company that specializes in repurposing them. You could also donate your old panels to a friend or neighbor who might have use for them.
Another consideration is that the usefulness of solar panels is not necessarily limited to supplying electricity. For example, many DIY projects incorporate old solar panels.
Want to build a greenhouse? Your solar panels are made of glass! Instead of investing in all-new materials, repurpose your solar panels by incorporating them into your greenhouse structure to keep plants warm.
You can even take along an old solar panel on camping trips. Wouldn’t it be great to have access to electrical power when you’re camping in a remote area?
[Related: Seven Uses of Solar Energy]
The Sustainability of SunPower Solar Panels
SunPower solar panels are manufactured in accordance with the highest standards of corporate, legal and social responsibility. They also comply with the supplier sustainability guidelines of the Solar Energies Industry Association.
These guidelines apply to solar panel manufacturers, suppliers, subcontractors and even customers involved in the solar supply chain.
SunPower is an industry leader when it comes to producing high-efficiency solar panels with low degradation rates. That means its solar panels perform better and last longer than other panels on the market.
In fact, SunPower’s solar panels produce up to 60% more energy than conventional solar panel models. This allows SunPower clients, such as through Freedom Solar, to minimize the environmental impact of their solar power systems.
SunPower’s higher lifetime energy output can also offset more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional solar panels.
The company uses a circular model for solar panel production and carefully chooses its resources to conserve energy, water and any front-end materials. SunPower uses 24% recycled glass and 20% recycled metal in its panels’ frames. SunPower’s aim is to keep panels in use for as long as possible.
Contact Freedom Solar to Learn More
The benefits of solar power could end up negated if we don’t pursue more effective and far-reaching recycling methods. That’s why it’s more important than ever to pursue innovative solar panel recycling techniques.
When you incorporate solar panels into your home or business, make sure you have a plan for them at the end of their life span. Contact a solar recycling company, repurpose old panels or give away old panels.
Featured image via Unsplash.