Can Solar Panels Be Recycled?
With millions of solar panels installed in U.S. homes and businesses, environmentalists have raised concerns about their eventual discard. Solar panels can be recycled. This is important, as estimates in early 2018 indicate there were 89 billion pounds, or 44.5 million tons, of solar modules installed in the United States. Recycling won’t only be necessary. It can also yield billions of dollars in recoverable assets.
How Can a Solar Panel Be Recycled?
First, the primary components of each module need to be separated. Silicon solar modules are made of three highly recyclable materials—glass, plastic, and aluminum. Separating these materials takes time and requires advanced equipment. But a silicone module can be recycled by removing its aluminum frame, which is 100% recyclable, meaning all the aluminum in the module can be used again.
Next, the glass components of the module are separated. This process occurs along a conveyor belt. Once all the glass is retrieved, 95% of it is reusable. The rest of the solar cell is then heated to 500°C, or about 932°F, to evaporate all traces of plastic, which eases the separation process. Once the silicon wafers are etched away, they can be smelted into reusable parts.
The recycling process can proceed in one of two ways. Solar panels may be first disassembled for glass and metal to be reused, plastic to be evaporated via thermal processing (then used as a heat source), and by physical separating cell modules. After etching, broken wafers are melted down to reuse the material.
Or, the panels may be shredded into small pieces, removing the lamination. A rotating screw is then used to separate materials, while film is removed using acid and peroxide. The remaining metals may then be moved to a separating and processing phase, or vibration may be applied to remove interlayer materials to isolate glass.
Challenges in Recycling Solar Panels
The number of materials used in solar panels presents a challenge. They contain a variety of metals aside from an aluminum frame. Copper, lead, cadmium, and gallium are just a few metals that may be present. To recycle a panel, all these need to be separated.
Around the world, the process is advancing and improving. A solar panel recycling association has been created in Europe, known as PV Cycle. Its mechanical and thermal treatment process recovers 96% of materials, while a waste-to-energy technology is used to utilize the remaining 4% in an energy recovery process. The company can recover up to 98% of materials from non-silicon solar panels.
Except for in California, there are no solar panel disposal guidelines in the U.S. However, guidelines from the European Union’s Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive may be used to develop domestic standards for solar panel recycling. In a few decades, the number of decommissioned solar systems is likely to increase, as is the amount of solar waste that can potentially enter landfills.
Start with Professional Installation
Solar panel recycling will become increasingly important in the future. Haleakala Solar & Roofing has installed thousands of solar energy systems in homes and businesses across the U.S. We specialize in professional site evaluations and can design a solar system from the ground up, accounting for location, roof orientation, and angle. From small single-home systems to larger commercial solar installations, our team of qualified solar installation contractors can handle projects of any size and meet a range of requirements. Call 808-400-4181 or request a free quote online today.