By Sarah Lozanova, Freelance Writer
Many homeowners install solar power systems because they want to help protect the environment and reduce their carbon footprint. However, solar panels have a typical lifespan of about 30 years and it’s important to consider what will happen to the equipment when it is decommissioned.
If solar panels and other components aren’t properly recycled at their end-of-life, this electronic waste will end up in landfills. Some solar modules are considered hazardous waste, which makes this even more concerning.
Many sustainability-minded people have started wondering what happens to solar panels after 30 years and if their solar panels will end up in landfills contributing to pollution. Because this is a relatively new issue, there isn’t a robust solar panel recycling infrastructure in place yet in the United States, but this is poised to change in upcoming years.
Here’s What Happens As Solar Panels Age
When solar panels are first installed, they produce the most power. Over time, the modules begin to degrade and the output slowly decreases. For example, many solar panels produce about 0.5% less energy each year. Although this might not seem like much, it does add up over time.
This degradation is normal and is caused by UV rays and adverse weather. Small cracks can form in the silicon and electronics can warp, reducing the solar panel’s output.
Solar panels don’t usually stop producing power entirely at the end of their lifespan, they just become less efficient in doing so. Eventually, homeowners typically want to replace them with more effective panels. Luckily, there are sometimes opportunities to reuse these old solar panels in less demanding applications.
What Happens To Old Solar Panels?
If you consider the waste reduction pyramid, source reduction and reuse are better end-of-life options than recycling waste or sending it to a landfill. Reuse doesn’t involve heating the materials down, which can create pollution. The most sustainable option is to reuse functional photovoltaic (PV) solar panels when optimum solar production is no longer necessary.
It is also possible to fully break down and recycle solar panels, but some challenges exist. For example, because solar technology is relatively new and demand is low for recycling services, there isn’t a robust recycling infrastructure in place across the United States. Also, it is a labor-intensive process, which means it’s costly.
Are Solar Panels Recyclable?
Solar panels are primarily composed of glass, aluminum and silicon, which are recyclable materials. Unfortunately, PV modules may also contain toxic metals, like lead and cadmium as well as small amounts of other materials that are difficult to recycle because the quantities are so miniscule.
Because there are different types of solar panel technologies, including crystalline silicon and thin-film solar, there are also different recycling processes for them. The racking systems for panels are made of metal, which is readily recyclable into high-value goods. Therefore, it is important to keep solar panels and racking systems out of landfills to conserve resources and space.
Despite the U.S. initially being a leader in solar panel manufacturing, it now lags behind Europe in creating policies to keep solar panels out of landfills and creating a robust recycling infrastructure. Now, it is critical for the U.S. to also scale up recycling programs, create effective policies and improve the solar panel recycling process to conserve raw materials.
How Solar Panels Are Recycled
After decommissioning the solar system, the solar panels can be sent to specialized recycling facilities for processing. From there, the panels are dismantled, removing the frame and junction box to recover the copper and aluminum within. By weight, solar panels are about 70% glass, and most of this is recovered.
Next, a thermal process is used to heat the remaining materials to over 900℉. This loosens the bonds between the cell elements. Then, the plastic falls off, enabling the silicon solar cells to be recycled. Although this is an energy-intensive process, its recovery rate for silicon is about 85%.
Challenges Of Solar Panel Recycling
Despite solar panels being recyclable, there are many hurdles hindering widespread PV module recycling efforts.
The cost of recycling a solar panel in the U.S. is between about $12-$25, not including transportation costs. Although PV panel recycling is relatively labor-intensive and expensive, it does create solar industry jobs for workers that recover these valuable resources. A standard 60-cell solar panel has about $3 of recoverable aluminum, copper and glass.
Sadly, recycling is more expensive than other options, and it costs less than $1 to dump solar panels in a landfill. There is unfortunately a financial incentive to just send solar panels to landfills instead of a recycling processor.
Although most new panels are more efficient in generating solar energy, they contain fewer valuable materials than many older panels. Unfortunately, this can be a disincentive for future recycling efforts, especially if there aren’t policies promoting them.
Image Credit: Sundog Solar