By Sarah Lozanova, Solar Writer
The United States now has enough installed solar energy capacity to power 17.7 million homes. Although this is fantastic for air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, it means there is a looming e-waste issue on the horizon. At some point, the photovoltaic panels will no longer generate enough energy. Is it possible to recycle solar panels when they have reached their end of life?
The design life of solar panels is 25 to 30 years. Over time, solar modules become less efficient in converting sunlight to electricity due to degradation. Most of the solar panels in the U.S. were installed in the last decade. The efficiency of the panels will decrease and need to be replaced. Broken solar panels are good candidates for a refurbishing program.
Currently, only a small fraction of solar panels are recycled. The lack of governmental policies, infrastructure, and foresight in the module design process makes solar panel recycling expensive and arduous. For solar energy to truly produce clean energy, we must recycle solar panels effectively.
What materials are in solar panels?
When exploring recyclability, it is helpful to consider the components that make up a solar photovoltaic (PV) panel. Silicon-based modules are comprised of glass, plastic, aluminum, and silicon. Unfortunately, they also contain trace toxic compounds, such as lead, which can leach into groundwater if not properly disposed of. Cadmium telluride (CdTe) is found in thin-film solar and is toxic and a carcinogen. Because thin-film currently constitutes less than 5% of the global module market, it is a smaller-scale concern.
How are solar panels recycled?
To recycle the modules, they must be disassembled to remove the glass and the metal components in the frames and junction boxes. Unfortunately, the remaining materials make a low-value product that is largely downcycled into low-value products. As a result, material recovery rates are often around 85%, and the demand for the recycled materials is low.
How can we improve solar panel recycling?
Extending the life of decommissioned solar modules through refurbishing is an appealing option when possible. Such initiatives create a secondary market for solar PV materials that can help keep prices down while reducing waste.
To achieve dramatic advancement in recycling initiatives’ value and recovery rates would require the direct reuse of materials in the frame, glass, tabbing, and solar cells. The copper, silver, and silicon also provide a valuable opportunity if they can be effectively recovered. For example, silicon could be recycled back into solar panels or the anodes of lithium-ion batteries.
If achieved, this could reduce waste while conserving energy and resources.
Where can I recycle solar panels?
Although the U.S. lacks a national network for solar panel recycling, there is a patchwork of recycling options. The Solar Energy Industries Association’s (SEIA’s) National PV Recycling Program has designated Preferred Recycling Partners that meet certain standards. Two solar manufacturers lead the way in their recycling efforts: First Solar and SunPower.
By Sarah Lozanova, Renewable Energy Writer
The energy mix in the United States has shifted significantly in recent years. Wind and solar energy capacity has skyrocketed and continues on an upward trend. Wind energy generated 7% of the total electricity in the United States in 2019. Since 2008, the use of coal-fired power plants has declined, as the use of renewable energy and natural gas has increased. Wind energy is an excellent way to reduce carbon emissions, but what happens when the wind turbine blades wear out? Is there a looming waste disposal issue?
Looming Waste Management Issues
The design life of wind turbines is about 20 to 25 years. The longest wind turbine blade to date is 350 feet, almost the length of a football field. Although certain parts of wind turbines can be relatively easily recycled, others are not designed for recyclability. In particular, wind turbine blades present the biggest waste management challenge, but researchers from the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in partnership with Arkema Inc. are making progress in this area.
Most wind turbine blades are currently constructed with composite material infused with a thermoset resin, which makes them highly durable to withstand storms and the elements. Unfortunately, thermoset plastics are almost impossible to recycle, so the blades do not have much scrap value and are not very appealing to recyclers. Therefore, many spent turbine blades are piling up in landfills, although some reinforced plastic blades are downcycled into cement products.
Promising Turbine Blade Research
The good news is that researchers have developed a blade out of thermoplastic resin (instead of thermoset resin) that is low-cost, lightweight, and seems to be recyclable. If the new blade also proves to be durable, this could be a gamechanger for the offshore and onshore wind industry. Lower costs also could help boost wind energy deployment, reducing the use of fossil fuels. A lightweight blade is easier to transport and uses less fuel. It also seems easier to recycle and uses less energy in the manufacturing process. These are all wins for the environment and the wind energy industry.
“With thermoset resin systems, it’s almost like when you fry an egg. You can’t reverse that,” said Derek Berry, a senior engineer at NREL in a press release. “But with a thermoplastic resin system, you can make a blade out of it. You heat it to a certain temperature, and it melts back down. You can get the liquid resin back and reuse that.” This means that the blades could be recycled instead of downcycled into lower-value goods.
So far, the thermoplastic resin blade durability looks promising. “The thermoplastic material absorbs more energy from loads on the blades due to the wind, which can reduce the wear and tear from these loads to the rest of the turbine system, which is a good thing,” said NREL researcher Robynne Murray.
Although the research looks promising, progress will be slow. Most wind farms being constructed today will be decommissioned in a few decades. The benefits of recyclable blades are still decades away at best. The decommissioning of wind farms and the associated environmental impact has largely been a blind spot for the industry. Hopefully, recent advances will help make wind power even greener. Despite the waste issue, wind power is still one of the most sustainable sources of energy.
By Sarah Lozanova, Solar Panel Writer
The U.S. has more than 2 million solar installations. This means there are tens of millions of solar panels on roofs and racking systems. Solar energy is fantastic for reducing carbon emissions and promoting energy independence, but what happens at the end of the panel’s 30-year lifespan?
There is a looming waste management issue as solar systems age and will eventually be decommissioned. Is the U.S. prepared for large-scale solar panel recycling?
“Installations two decades ago are nearing their end of life, and that becomes a challenge for the waste industry,” says Garvin Heath, a senior scientist in the Strategic Energy Analysis Center of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “Because it takes a long time to develop technology and policy and solutions to dealing with end-of-life products, this is something we need to start to address today.”
According to Heath, solar panels could comprise more than 10 percent of global electronic waste by 2050.
Solar panel recycling presents an economic opportunity and can spawn new industries. A study by the International Renewable Agency (IRENA) estimates that by 2050, $15 billion could be recovered from recycling solar panels. There are also repair and reuse opportunities for solar panels that fail prematurely. These repaired solar panels are often sold at a discount, creating opportunities in new markets where affordability is an issue.
What Parts of the Solar Panel Can Be Recycled?
Glass, plastic, aluminum, and silicon comprise 99 percent of the silicon-based solar panels.
Image Credit: Nichole McClure
By Sarah Lozanova, Corporate Sustainability Writer
Did you know that Americans use 50 billion plastic water bottles each year, with a recycling rate of only 23%? From an environmental standpoint, it brings up numerous concerns. Kicking our bottled water habit can conserve resources, but what are we going to do with the billions of plastic bottles that are recycled? How do we boost stubbornly low plastic bottle recycling rates?
Luckily, Patagonia has been looking at this issue for decades and has made considerable progress in turning plastic trash into polyester fabric for apparel. The company has found a way to actually upcycle plastic bottles, finding a good use for this waste stream by turning it into a higher value goods.
In 1993, Patagonia produced the first polyester fleece jacket from recycled bottles. It had a green tint, from green soda bottles. Now, manufacturing waste, plastic bottles, and worn out clothing is recycled into new apparel, literally closing the recycling loop. Patagonia's product line has expanded from fleece jackets to include 82 products with recycled polyester, including insulated pants, down jackets, and beanies.
Freelance renewable energy writer