Engineer walking between photovoltaic panels for solar energy production

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.

First Solar

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

SunPower

This manufacturer has a recycling collection program for its products and uses recycling partners to process the materials. SunPower’s Maxeon 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 made 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 across the U.S. and also work with solar refurbishing providers when recycling is unnecessary.

Echo Environmental

Based in Carrollton, Texas, the company domestically recycles electronics and can process scrap metal and precious metal-bearing products, including PV modules, inverters, and charge controllers.

Are there effective solar panel recycling programs in the US?

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

Are there policies promoting solar panel recycling?

The U.S. lags behind the EU in having comprehensive policies that promote safe and effective solar decommissioning. A national policy will help keep millions of modules out of landfills and promote the circular economy. In their absence, a few states have taken actions to keep PV panels out of landfills. Some states, including California, treat solar panels as hazardous waste. Washington has a solar stewardship program requiring that manufacturers collect panels at no charge to the customer for end of life for recycling.

Achieving a circular economy

Ultimately, solar panels need to be designed for recyclability to achieve a circular economy. Currently, the combination of mechanical, thermal, and chemical processes make PV recycling difficult and costly. Also, toxicity concerns make proper handling vital.

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

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.