The United States now has enough installed solar energy capacity to supply 17.7 million homes. While this is fantastic for air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, it means that an e-waste problem is looming on the horizon. At some point the photovoltaic panels will no longer generate enough energy. Is it possible to recycle solar panels when they reach the end of their life?

The lifespan of solar panels is 25 to 30 years. Over time, solar panels become less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity due to degradation. Most of the solar panels in the US were installed in the past decade. The panels become less efficient and need to be replaced. Broken solar panels are good candidates for a remediation program.

Currently only a small part of the solar panels is recycled. The lack of government guidelines, infrastructure, and foresight in the module design process makes recycling solar modules expensive and tedious. In order for solar energy to produce truly clean energy, we need to effectively recycle solar panels.

What materials are in solar panels?

When studying recyclability, it is helpful to consider the components that make up a photovoltaic (PV) module. Silicon based Modules are made of glass, plastic, aluminum and silicon. Unfortunately, they also contain traces of toxic compounds such as lead which, if not disposed of properly, can end up in the groundwater. Cadmium telluride (CdTe) occurs in thin-film solar and is toxic and carcinogenic. Since thin film is currently less than 5% of the global module market, it’s a minor concern.

How are solar panels recycled?

To recycle the modules, they must be dismantled to remove the glass and metal components in the frames and junction boxes. Unfortunately, the remaining materials make an inferior product, for the most part shut down convert into substandard products. As a result, the material recycling rates are often around 85% and the demand for the recycled materials is low.

How can we improve the recycling of solar modules?

Extending the service life of decommissioned solar modules by refurbishing is an attractive option whenever possible. Such initiatives create a secondary market for PV materials that can help keep prices down while reducing waste.

To dramatically improve the value and recovery rates of recycling initiatives, the direct reuse of materials in the frame, glass, tabs 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 this is achieved, it could reduce waste while saving energy and resources.

Where can I recycle solar panels?

Although the USA lacks a national network There is a patchwork of recycling options for recycling solar modules. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) National PV recycling program has designated as Preferred Recycling Partners who meet certain standards. Two solar manufacturers are leading their recycling efforts: First Solar and SunPower.

First solar

First Solar has recycling facilities in the US, Germany and Malaysia that reclaim up to 90% of the materials. According to the website, up to 90% of the semiconductor material can be reused in new modules and 90% of the glass in new glass products.

Solar power

This manufacturer has a recycling collection program for its products and uses recycling partners to process the materials. Maxeon from SunPower E series and X series Direct current (DC) panels achieved Cradle to Cradle Certified ™ Bronze Status. This is a “measure of safer, more sustainable products for the circular economy”.

Cascade Eco Minerals

This company has a zero landfill commitment. It either processes all materials in-house or sends them to recycling partners. They have seven locations in the US and also work with solar remediation providers when recycling is not a requirement.

Echo environment

Headquartered in Carrollton, Texas, the company recycles electronics domestically and can process scrap metal and precious metal-containing products such as PV modules, inverters, and charge controllers.

Are there any effective solar panel recycling programs in the US?

The USA lacks adequate recycling infrastructure, and solar panels are no exception. We need to develop sufficient infrastructure to process the solar panel materials on a large scale. Unfortunately, module recycling is not profitable. Creating recycling incentives could boost growth. The sustainability of the solar energy industry relies on creating a profitable recycling market for processors and manufacturers.

Are there any guidelines that encourage recycling of solar modules?

The USA is lagging behind the EU through comprehensive guidelines to promote the safe and effective decommissioning of solar systems. A national policy will help keep millions of modules out of landfills and the Circular economy. In their absence, some states have taken measures to keep PV modules out of landfills. Some states, including California, treat solar panels as hazardous waste. Washington has a solar stewardship program Manufacturers must collect the panels for recycling free of charge at the end of their useful life.

Achieve a circular economy

Ultimately, there must be solar panels designed for recyclability to achieve a circular economy. Currently, the combination of mechanical, thermal and chemical processes makes PV recycling difficult and costly. In addition, toxicity concerns make proper handling critical.

A truly comprehensive recycling strategy involves developing end-of-life solar panels by using fewer toxins and making material extraction easier. Reduce the use of use Lead-based soldering used to hold electronic components together is a good first step.