Recycling is a process of transforming old or broken stuff into new useful things. While opting for sustainable choices like solar energy, you may wonder if solar panels can be recycled. In this blog, we will explore this topic, providing a detailed look at the recycling process.
Can Solar Panels be Recycled?
Yes! Solar panels can be recycled because most of its components can be reused. The main components of silicon solar modules are glass, plastic, and aluminum. These three materials are widely recycled as they are used in large quantities. Glass can be recycled and 75% of it can be used again.
Note that apart from glass, the materials located inside the solar cells are very difficult to recycle. Whereas other components can be taken into use again like racking, inverter, and battery backup systems.
Recycling is a critical component of decommissioning, which is the last stage of the solar panel life cycle. So, to better understand this concept, let’s go through the life cycle stages in detail.
What is Solar Panel Life Cycle?
The solar panel life cycle can be categorized into three stages: production, use, and decommissioning.
This stage is about designing, sourcing materials, and manufacturing solar panels. The production stage requires an initial investment of resources and energy. In this stage, manufacturers can also focus on optimizing the end product’s efficiency and emphasize the reduction of carbon emissions.
Solar panels produce renewable energy by harnessing sunlight. This stage offsets the energy consumed during production before feeding it into the grid. The time period of this energy payback period varies, usually ranging from six months to two years, depending on the area and the technologies used. These solar panels typically last for 25 to 30 years, yielding significant energy output that contributes to sustainability objectives.
When solar panels reach the end of their useful life, responsible options like repair, reuse, refurbishment, recycling, or appropriately disposing of them can be considered. A circular economy approach aims to optimize resource use while minimizing waste. However, landfilling represents the least sustainable choice, trapping valuable materials and contributing to environmental degradation.
You can also check out Why Do Solar Panels Degrade?
What is Life Cycle Costing (LCC)?
Life Cycle Costing (LCC) is a useful methodology for evaluating the costs associated with Renewable Energy (RE) systems. It demonstrates the advantages of using RE as an alternative source of energy, compared to the expenses incurred when relying on fuel.
The model for LCC for PV generation system includes cost data acquisition from four different sources. The results indicate that the average module price is around $0.56 per watt-peak (Wp), while the approximate capital investment cost amounts to $1.184 per watt-peak (Wp).
The solar PV generation system’s developed LCC model can be distributed into five cost categories:
- Development/planning (CDev)
- Electrical apparatus (CElec)
- Mounting structure and civil work (CCivil)
- Operation and maintenance (CO&M)
- PV panels (CPanel)
The formula to calculate Life Cycle Cost is,
LCC = CDev+ CPanel + CElec. + CCivil + CO&M.
What is the Recycling Process for Solar Panels?
Many attempts have been made to refurbish and repurpose panels that have experienced a decline in efficiency, or alternatively salvage valuable components from them.
There are two primary types of solar panels that necessitate distinct recycling methods. While the modules are indeed recyclable, the process of separating the materials can be quite laborious and necessitates the use of sophisticated machinery.
1. Silicon Based Solar Panel Recycling
To ensure the successful recycling of a silicon module, it is essential to follow these key steps:
- The aluminum frame can be easily removed and is completely reusable.
- Glass is separated on a conveyor belt, with 95% of it being reusable.
- Thermal treatment is performed at a temperature of 500° Celsius.
- After this small plastic components evaporate and make it easier to separate the cells.
- Silicon wafers can be etched away and melted into reusable slabs, with 80-85% of the material being reusable.
The advanced technology guarantees that none of this plastic goes to waste, as it is instead reused as a valuable heat source for additional thermal processing.
Cross-Reference: Recycling of Materials from Silicon Base Solar Cell Module
Also See: Will a Cracked Solar Panel Still Work?
2. Thin-Film Based Solar Panel Recycling
Thin-film modules go through a significantly more advanced processing method in comparison and the initial step involves placing them into a shredder.
- A hammer mill thoroughly grinds the particles down to a uniform size of 4-5mm.
- This step is absolutely essential because it allows the lamination, which holds the materials inside together, to break, thus facilitating their removal.
- In contrast to silicon-based PV panels, the remaining material is composed of a combination of solid and liquid substances.
- A rotating screw separates solid parts from liquid by keeping them inside a tube and collecting the liquid in a container.
- To ensure the highest level of purity, liquids undergo a meticulous precipitation and dewatering process to separate semiconductors.
- The final step of the process relies on the specific technology utilized in panel production. An impressive 95% of the semiconductor material is typically recycled.
Solid objects are often contaminated with what are known as interlayer materials. These materials are lighter and can easily be removed through the use of a vibrating surface. Finally, the material undergoes a thorough rinsing process. What remains is pristine glass, retaining 90% of the glass components for effortless re-manufacturing.
Cross-Reference: Eco-Friendly Recycling of Thin-Film Solar Cells
Where to Recycle Solar Panels?
Since you know that solar panels can be recycled and the process involved in it, note that the cost savings they provide are often quite minimal. The following links can offer solutions for recycling programs.
2. SEIA National PV Recycling Program
Founded in 2016, the National PV Recycling Program is a network of organizations that recycles and repairs used solar equipment. They work with the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) as the SEIA National PV Recycling Program to develop responsible recycling practices for the industry.
What is Solar Panel Replacement Cost?
The cost depends on the severity of the damage, panel size, and where it’s installed, while the remaining expenses include solar equipment and permits. Here is the simplified breakdown of the solar panel replacement cost:
- On average, replacing one solar panel usually costs around $300 to $500.
- The rate to remove and install a single panel is around $100 per hour.
- Repairing a solar PV system can cost you anywhere from $250 to $1,700, and additional expenses may apply based on specific needs.
Note: The price can change depending on the solar company or installer you select.
Also See: How to Get Out of a Solar Panel Contract
How Long Solar Panels Would Last Without Sun?
We all know solar panels use sunlight to convert photons into electricity but they can generate some energy even on cloudy and snowy days. During the night they stop working, but other components like solar inverters and batteries keep powering your house.
Note that these panels can last up to thirty years or longer, but without sunlight, they won’t be able to perform their best.
In this article, you have learned whether solar panels can be recycled and the processes involved in it. Recycling solar panels not only extends their lifespan but also reduces the environmental impact of energy production. Additionally, we have discussed solar panel replacement and the life cycle cost. For more interesting solar content, keep exploring our blog posts.
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