Solar Panel Recycling 101
Solar power has been exploding in popularity in recent years. These days, when people think about how to dispose of electronics, solar panels need to be factored in. They’re touted for their sustainability, but to be truly earth-friendly, they need to be responsibly recycled at the end of their usefulness. That’s where solar panel recycling comes in. It’s the logical way to make sure solar panels are as sustainable as possible.
As we continue to move toward more renewable energy sources, solar panel recycling will only become more important. Solar power hasn’t been widespread for all that long, and as such, there aren’t too many panels that have reached the end of their lives and need to be properly disposed of. But that’s a problem that will continue to grow as solar panels become more and more popular.
Here, our goal is to dive into how solar panel recycling works. We’ll get into all the steps in the process, the challenges it faces, and every other aspect of those sorts of programs. Let’s jump right in.
How do solar panels work?
Before we can describe how to dispose of electronics like solar panels when they stop working, we need to understand how they work in the first place and what happens when they break down over time.
Ever heard of photovoltaics? It’s a scary-looking word, but we promise you’re probably more familiar with it than you think, and there’s nothing to be afraid of. Photovoltaics, or PV, is just one of the most popular solar power technologies. It’s used in most solar panels. The PV cells in a solar panel take the energy from sunshine and create electrical charges with it. An electrical field within the PV cell causes those charges to move, and that’s how electricity starts to flow.
Those PV cells are linked together in larger units — that’s how you get whole panels out of single cells, since each cell only produces 1 or 2 watts on their own. If there’s a large power need, the panels can also be connected, and then they’re attached to the electrical grid. Solar power can be modified to suit small residential needs or large community ones because of this modular setup.
That’s a super simplified explanation of solar panel technology, but it’s a good jumping off point for everything to follow. You can’t know how to dispose of electronics without knowing how they work and what they’re made of.
Why do we have to replace solar panels?
Now that we have a baseline knowledge of PV cells and how they generate electricity, we can look into how they degrade and fail over time, leading to the necessity of solar panel recycling.
The reasons solar panels fail can mostly be chalked up to regular wear and tear. Like anything that sits outside for decades, they’re going to take something of a beating. Due to weather conditions and other factors, they can degrade as much as 3 percent every year, producing less and less electricity over time. There are other things that can cause problems, though. One of them is potential induced degradation, which happens when those different parts of the same solar power system are at different voltage potentials. That can lead to electrical current leaking, and that messes with the sodium ions in the glass.
We’re simplifying things, but that’s the gist of it. Solar panel recycling is necessary because different environmental factors mean that the panels break down over time and stop producing as much electricity. When that time comes, you’ll need to know how to dispose of electronics.
How long does a solar panel last?
Solar panel recycling is only necessary when the solar panels quit generating power, so it makes sense to start with how long they last before that recycling process is necessary. Solar panels generally last between 20 and 30 years, but that’s just a rule of thumb. You’ll need to monitor the electricity output to be sure of when your solar panels actually need replacing. It could be longer than that 30-year benchmark, especially if they’re high-quality panels. Don’t make the mistake of solar panel recycling too early and missing out on some useful years of solar power. You don’t need to know how to dispose of electronics if they’re still working, and the same thing goes for solar panels.
Like we said in the last section, environmental factors are going to be the main determinants of how long a solar panel lasts. For example, couple harsh winters with snow melting and refreezing on the frame of a panel can bend it, causing failures and degradation.
Why is solar panel recycling important?
If you have solar panels, you’re probably already fully convinced of the importance of renewable resources, so you probably don’t have too many qualms about recycling. In fact, we’d venture a guess that you don’t need us to convince you of solar panel recycling’s importance, and you’re probably already very aware of how to dispose of electronics responsibly. Even still, solar panel recycling is going to grow exponentially in importance in the next few decades. We’d like to give you some sense of the scope of that growth.
The International Renewable Energy Agency expects “large amounts of annual waste” from defunct solar panels by the early 2030s. By 2050, the US could have as much as 10 million tonnes of solar panel waste. If the recyclable raw materials from solar panel waste worldwide in that same time period is fully utilized, it could be worth as much as $15 billion. That’s a big incentive to make solar panel recycling as accessible as possible.
What are the steps in solar panel recycling?
Solar panel recycling is similar to any other recycling process. First, the solar panels need to be collected at the recycling center. Since solar panel recycling isn’t all that widespread yet, you might have a little difficulty finding a recycling facility, depending on where you live. Definitely check with electronics recycling companies in your area about if they take solar panels, and if not, you can ask if they know of any other centers that do. They’re experts in how to dispose of electronics, so they should be able to answer any questions you have that we miss.
After collection, the different components need to be separated out and sorted. Solar panels can be silicon based or thin-film based. Both can be recycled; they just have a slightly different makeup of materials. Solar panel recycling usually takes one of two forms: Mechanical recycling or chemical/thermal recycling.
This form of solar panel recycling physically separates out the different components of the solar panel. The aluminum framing can be removed, and then the rest is sometimes ground up into a composite mixture called glass cullet. Builders can utilize this material in some projects. More advanced mechanical recyclers can separate out the wiring and silicon using special machines, but on the whole, this sort of process isn’t very precise.
Rather than separating out a solar panel’s different components mechanically, this sort of procedure uses chemical processes to sort things out. This occurs at the molecular level, so it’s definitely a lot more complex and precise than the mechanical separation process.
There is one more way to make use of solar panels once they’ve exceeded their initial lifetime. For some purposes, refurbishing old, suboptimal solar panels makes a lot of sense. That way, you never even have to worry about how to dispose of electronics, you just reuse them. The problem, though, is that they aren’t going to generate enough power for heavy use. If you just need a solar panel to power a road sign or something simple like that, though, refurbishing instead of recycling might be the way to go.
Where can I go to recycle solar panels?
In the U.S. today, most solar panel recycling happens at general glass recycling centers. However, this isn’t the ideal place to recycle your solar panels. This is because they’re specifically glass recyclers, and solar panels contain a lot of other materials. They’ll sometimes also recycle the metal frames, but they mostly discard any components that aren’t glass. That’s a shame because there are lots of other recyclable elements to solar panels — plastic and aluminum components can definitely be utilized again. Sometimes, solar panels are considered hazardous waste and have to be disposed of that way. These aren’t great options.
The good news is that there are growing opportunities to make sure no parts of any solar panels get dumped in a landfill. The only hard part is finding them. You can start by reaching out to the company that initially made your solar panels. Lots of them have recycling programs in place for their products, and even if they don’t, they might be able to point you in the right direction.
You can also check with electronics recyclers in your area. They already know how to dispose of electronics in an environmentally friendly way, so they might also be able to recycle your solar panels.
What difficulties are there in the solar panel recycling process?
One is simple accessibility. If there’s not a place equipped for solar panel recycling in your area, then you’re not going to be able to take advantage of those programs. A compounding factor here is that not all electronics recycling companies will accept solar panels. They know how to dispose of electronics like TVs and microwaves, but they’re not equipped to handle solar panels. The lack of readily available solar panel recyclers is definitely one of the top difficulties in the process.
Then there’s the issue of publicity. How many people are aware that solar panels can and should be recycled? Probably a lot less than those who know to look for a recycling can for their soda cans and water bottles. As our current solar power infrastructure ages, it’ll be important to educate everyone on the benefits of solar panel recycling.
The other difficulties aren’t as obvious. Recall that solar panels are made up of a lot of different components. You’ve got glass, plastic, and metal, which are all easily recyclable on their own, but the hard part is separating out those materials. Having the capabilities to recycle each element in its own way is not attainable for many recyclers, even if they’re aware of how to dispose of electronics.
Another hurdle to keep in mind is the silicon solar cells within solar panels. They’re not recyclable in the same way that the glass or metal is. To reuse the silicon and metals within them, a specialty company needs to melt them down and harvest the individual materials. That’s not something most recyclers are equipped to do.
Knowing how to dispose of electronics needs to include solar panel recycling.
Solar power is more than just an excellent Lorde album. It’s one of the growing sources of sustainable energy in the world today. As such, solar panel recycling is going to become a big concern in the coming years.
As our current solar power infrastructure ages and new technology is developed, it’ll be increasingly important to know how to dispose of electronics like these in an environmentally
conscious way. It’s not enough just to focus on recycling electronics like computers and TVs — bigger, newer, more complex items need to be properly disposed of, too. That includes solar panels.
There are various ways of accomplishing this important task. We detailed the different methods of how to dispose of electronics like these: Mechanical, chemical, and refurbishing. We also went over how to find a place that offers these services in your area, and we talked briefly about the kinds of problems they face when working out how to reuse your defunct solar panels.
This is a rapidly growing industry that’s going to need real solutions in the near future. Hopefully, now you’re confident you know how to dispose of electronics like solar panels when the time comes.