Can Solar Panels Be Recycled?

Aerial view of solar panels on factory roof.

If you’re interested in more environmentally friendly energy solutions, such as the ones provided by solar companies, you may be curious about solar panels and the entirety of their environmental impact. Are they really that sustainable if they end up in a landfill? Although considered a greener energy solution than fossil fuels, there are still other aspects of their environmental impact to consider, such as how they are disposed of when they are no longer productive. Thankfully, most solar panels are designed to have a significant lifespan and are also highly recyclable.

If solar panels generate electricity without emissions, they’re already ahead of the game when it comes to clean energy. But what about their actual infrastructure? Are the parts of the sum just as clean and green? The short answer is: yes. Most components of solar panels can be reused, refurbished or upcycled at the end of their working life, which is generally about 25-35 years. Here’s a brief overview of how.

Refurbishing and Reusing Solar Panels

Refurbished Solar Panels

As the solar panel industry grows, so does the market for refurbished panels and inverters. Many consumers are interested in the lower price points of refurbished materials over having the latest and greatest technology. If a solar panel is damaged by weather, through transport, or another accident of some type, they are usually quite easily repaired and can be sent back to the market. Refurbishing old or damaged solar panels creates an opportunity to access cleaner renewable energy at a lower cost of investment, which many companies and private buyers are interested in as this new technology develops.

Reusing Panels and Parts

There are a plethora of different ways to reuse solar panels and their disassembled parts – it all depends on how creative you can be. Solar companies often cater to a variety of clientele, assisting with many different needs, but the most common way that old solar panels are immediately reused seems to be by creating greenhouses for plants. Another way that old solar panels can be reused is by keeping them for lower-power jobs, such as electricity for camping or smaller spaces.

Solar Panels Are 90% Recyclable by Mass

When it comes to reducing the amount of waste created by a solar panel, recycling is the most popular disposal solution. Solar panels are mainly made up of glass and metal, but even the other components can be recycled and reused.

Before diving into the process of how solar panels are recycled, it may be helpful to gain a better understanding of how they are designed and composed, which you can find here.

For silicon-based solar panels, the process looks something like this: first, the materials are collected. Then, the aluminum and glass parts are disassembled and processed. Approximately 95% of the glass is reused for various purposes, and so is 100% of the metal.

Thermal processing begins around this point at 500 degrees celsius. Cellular modules are disassembled and the plastic is evaporated and reused as a heat source for this process. Cellular modules are further physically separated, at which point about 80% of the modules are able to be reused. The silicon wafers of the remaining modules are etched away, and broken wafers are melted down, which results in 85% of the silicon being reused as well.

Although there isn’t currently a huge industry in recycling solar panels, as infrastructure changes to support this renewable energy solution, and more solar panels are installed, the sector is sure to grow. It must also be considered that solar energy technologies are still relatively new, so there hasn’t been a large need for the ability to sustainably dispose of outdated materials. However, it has been estimated that by the year 2050, the recyclable materials of old modules will be worth approximately $15 billion in recoverable assets.

As we consider that solar photovoltaic technology has increased in deployment exponentially over the last decade, it comes as no surprise that the recycling sector for these unique technologies will continue to grow.

A Viable Green Solution

With all of the above in mind, it’s hard to disagree with the idea that solar panels are a great solution to reducing the amount of waste we currently produce from non-renewable energy sources. While not 100% recyclable, the amount of waste produced by a defunct solar panel is significantly low.

Reduced carbon emissions are definitely achieved with the implementation of solar panels – knowing that general waste is also almost a non-factor because they are highly recyclable is another great aspect of their growing popularity.

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