Part 1: How are solar panels recycled? What new innovations are brewing?
Part 2: Where can I recycle them?
Part 3: Will we care enough to recycle them? Is it worth it?
First, a bird’s eye view.
Multiple studies have shown that the energy to make the solar panels (mining, manufacturing, transport) is “paid back” in about 1-2 years of clean energy produced by the solar panel.
“Assuming a 30-year system life, PV systems will provide a net gain of 26 to 29 years of pollution-free and greenhouse-gas-free electrical generation.” – www.nrel.gov/docs/fy04osti/35489.pdf
Even after their 30 years of peak efficiency, solar panels can and are being re-purposed for other uses worldwide.
This cannot be said for fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil. Once used and energy is generated, all that is left is pollution. Also with gas and oil extraction and transportation, there is a constant stream of methane being leaked, burned and vented into the atmosphere and potential for huge, damaging oils spills.
Inquiring minds still want to know, and rightfully so, what will happen after we have used and re-used solar panels for 30 years or more. Can we recycle them? The answer is YES!
But the question remains… will we recycle them? Is there motivation, incentive or policy that will help recycling become a norm not a dream? This is part of the larger conversation covered in Part 2 and 3 of this article series.
Spoiler: We can recycle solar panels effectively, if we and the “powers that be” choose to put planet over profit.
Part 1: How are solar panels recycled?
Here is a video showing the process of solar panel recycling in action:
An average silicon based solar panel at your home is made of :
Glass, which is 95%-100% reusable and makes up roughly 75% of silicon-based photovoltaic panels.
Aluminum, which is 100% reusable and makes up about 6% to 8% of the average photovoltaic panel.
Plastic, which makes up about 10% – can be recycled only 2-3 times
Silicon, which makes up roughly 5% – which until recently (see below) was hard to repurpose into another efficient solar panel.
What new innovations are brewing?
Fraunhofer ISE Invents A New Process To Recycle Silicon In Old Solar Panels
– February 7th, 2022
The Skinny: This invention recrystallizes the silicon from old solar panels that were low efficiency, and reprocesses them to make high efficiency solar cells. Essentially making them better than before.
The crystallization is carried out with 100% recycled silicon without the addition of commercial ultra-pure silicon. In the first trial, the solar cell conversion efficiency was 19.7%. “This is below the efficiency of today’s premium PERC solar cells, which have an efficiency of around 22.2 percent, but it is certainly above that of the solar cells in the old, discarded modules. – www.cleantechnica.com/2022/02/08/fraunhofer-ise-invents-silicon-recycling-process-for-solar-panels/
With a life span of 30 years (unless re-used), solar panels need to be dealt with in a manner that fits the original purpose of getting solar to begin with. A full circle, cleaner energy solution than fossil fuels. Solar does save us money, but as a society we need our clean and renewable options for generating energy to “go all the way.” It is no secret that coming soon many solar panels will come to their end of use.
Like a student cramming for an exam the next day, we have waited until that final night to come up with real solutions for this potential waste stream. Fortunately we have the processes already developed to recycle and reuse solar panels, but now we are fast approaching the need for implementation of these solutions to provide a full circle, sustainable experience for our solar power community.
In the following parts of this series we will discuss where we can recycle locally and what that actually looks like. We will discuss what hurdles are still in our way, but can (and will!) be surmounted if we desire to be the change we want to see.
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