Can solar panels really be recycled? Yes, but it won’t happen in a matter of days. It will take years of research and development and a lot more work. Here are some of the challenges. The first is that solar modules are difficult to disassemble, and glass from the solar cells is very hard to remove. However, breakthrough technology could make it easier.
Materials that are recyclable
Solar panels can contain a variety of materials including glass and aluminum. The remaining 20% of the solar panels can’t be recycled. Glass and aluminum are recyclable easily. Additionally, some panels contain other components like inverters and racks. It can be done, although it is sometimes difficult.
ROSI is a French startup that aims at recycling solar panels by using its proprietary chemical process. The process involves removing tiny silver threads from panels. These threads transmit electricity through solar panels. The process recovers nearly all the silver in solid form, which is easier to separate from other metals. The solid silicon can then be used in new panels and in EV batteries.
Unfortunately, there are not many recycling processes for PV materials. Monocrystalline silicon recycling techniques are well-developed, but CdTe and other thin film recycling processes are not. There are still many areas to improve. The process of recycling generation three PV materials is still in the infancy.
Today, only 10% of solar panels in the US are recycled. Recycling is more expensive than simply dumping them in the landfills. It is estimated that by 2050, the materials that are recycled in solar panels could be worth up to $2 billion. ROSI is working to extract valuable materials from solar panel panels. It is essential that we increase the production and use of solar power to reduce our carbon emissions.
Solar panels can be made from silicon, glass and aluminum that can be reused. Some materials can’t be recycled, however. Currently, solar panels are considered to be too expensive and wasteful to be recycled. Recycling solar panels can be a good way to reduce our carbon footprint and save money.
Recycling thin-film panels requires different processes than crystalline solar panels. Thin-film panels, for instance, contain cadmium and require special handling. First Solar has a recycling plan for these modules. Its recycling process starts with pyrolising the modules, which burns plastic components at 600 degrees Celsius. Next, the glass is separated from the metal components. Finally, the cells can be separated from the EVA and glass laminates. Finally, the cells are subsequently processed into wafers.
While solar panel recycling in America is still relatively new, the demand and supply of solar panel recyclers will continue growing as the solar technology advances. According to a 2016 International Renewable Energy Agency Report, the market for used solar panels could grow to $15 billion by 2050. This is why the solar industry should work to develop such programs.
Materials that can be recycled in solar panels include metal, glass, and wiring. The silicon cells are however a critical component of a solar panels. The silicon cells are recyclable, but silicon wafers are not recyclable. Specialty recycling companies can recover the silicon and other metals contained in the silicon cells. It is difficult to recycle these materials, but it is possible if they can be separated and processed correctly.
Regulations governing recycling standards
A new regulatory framework could help recyclers manage solar panels responsibly. Sustainable Electronics Recycling International will be adding solar panels as an item to its R2 standard for escrap certification. Already, nearly 1,000 facilities have achieved R2 certification. However, processing solar panels is becoming more difficult as more of them enter the end-of life stream. This creates both business opportunities as well as processing problems.
The new regulation has two main goals: maximising recovery yields and reducing the impurities in recycled goods. These goals are designed to help companies reduce operating costs and capital while protecting the environment. The new rules stipulate that heat and chemical processes are used to separate glass from silicon cells.
In the meantime, solar panel manufacturers can take action to green their industry by ensuring that their products are recyclable. The WEEE directive (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment), has been recently adopted by EU. The directive was created in 2012 and has been adopted into national law. It is the first comprehensive recycling regulation for PV modules. In the United States, SunPower and other solar manufacturers are taking steps to ensure the materials used in the production of their products are recycled.
State governments are also taking steps towards encouraging PV recycling. Washington State’s new regulations require that manufacturers have a state-approved plan to reuse solar panels at the end of their life. This will provide companies with the opportunity to offer recycling services for solar panels. This will promote solar energy.
In addition to these new regulations, First Solar has already begun to recycle its solar panels. First Solar is a leader in the field of PV recycling. The company actively participated in the solar panel stakeholder process in Washington state and is committed to making its products more recyclable. The company’s participation in the EPR process helped it improve their design and make it more feasible to recycle.
The new regulations have made solar panel recycling much easier. The state has started to regulate the industry’s disposal. Solar panel recyclers must comply with stringent reporting and recordkeeping requirements, in addition to strict regulations regarding transportation and storage.
There are many incentives available for solar panel recycling. They can range from lower costs to higher profits for customers and manufacturers. If a policy is created that encourages recycling, solar panel can be recycled responsibly and profitably for all parties. Solar panel recycling offers several benefits including lower costs, increased efficiency, and environmental benefits.
Reusing solar panels from the past may be the best choice in the long-term, but it is not always the best. New solar panels are designed for decades of electricity production. Many will be retired before their useful lifespan is up. More solar panels will need more recycling.
Current status of solar panels recycling
As solar panel usage continues to rise, so will the need and necessity for solar panel recycling. Unfortunately, the existing infrastructure may not be able to meet the growing demand of this market. However, increased investment could help this market grow sooner than anticipated. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that recycled materials could meet 30 to 50 percent of domestic solar manufacturing needs by 2040. This would mean that a $18 per panel investment over 12 years would create a viable industry for solar panel recycling.
Most solar panels are made from glass and metal, both which can be easily recycled. Recent trends indicate that glass recycling is declining in the US. Single-stream recycling is less efficient than it should be, and the resulting waste is more polluted. This causes more processing, which ultimately makes the “cullet” less useful.
Although there isn’t any national legislation that mandates solar panel recycling, many states have taken steps to improve this process. New Jersey recently passed a law regarding solar panel recycling, and also established a commission that will study end-of life management. The report is expected be published in the first quarter of 2019. Moreover, California passed legislation in 2020 that made solar panels a universal waste. New York state is also considering legislation regarding the disposal of solar panel assemblies.
In the United States, there is enough solar panel capacity installed to power 17.7 million homes. This is good news, but it will eventually need to be discarded. This will be a good opportunity for the industry to recycle these panels and divert them from landfills.
Despite the recent increase in solar power installations solar panel recycling is still relatively new. It is still a relatively new industry, however, the exponential growth in solar power should allow it to scale up quickly. As PV panels are more efficient and reliable the demand for recycling and reuse will rise.
The SEIA PV Recycling Working Group has developed a national PV recycling program. The program offers members specific benefits. It also includes a list with preferred recycling partners. This allows members of the list to choose the company that meets their needs. This makes recycling both easier and more efficient for the environment.
The European Union requires PV panel manufacturers to recycle their panels. Veolia, the French water- and waste management company opened a solar panel recycle facility in 2018. To separate the materials and then reuse them, the company uses a mechanical recycling method. These materials have a higher value but require more processing, which increases their cost.
This sector has seen some growth in recent years, but it is still early days. Only a few companies provide these services to solar developers at the moment. These services are still insufficiently sought after to stimulate rapid growth.