Solar Panel Recycling

What happens to solar panels after they reach the end of life?

Solar PV panels have a long life span of approx. 30 years. However, there will come a time when they will need to be retired.

We take a look at how solar PV panels get recycled below.

Disposal of solar PV panels.

In the EU, solar PV panel disposal is classed as e-waste under the WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive). This means that the solar panel manufacturers are bound by law to fulfil specific legal requirements and recycling standards to ensure that the solar panels are not a burden on the environment.

Recycling solar PV panels

There is a common misconception that solar PV panels are not recyclable and that there will be tons of solar panels in landfills by 2050. This is factually incorrect. Solar Panels are recyclable but the process is at the moment in its infancy, but the techniques are already being put to use today.

The Process

There are several different ways to recycle solar PV panels according to the type of material in the solar panel. The most common type of solar panel in Ireland is the silicon-based panel.

Research studies conducted on the topic of recycling solar panels have resulted in numerous technologies. Some of them even reach an astonishing 96% recycling efficiency, but the aim is to raise the bar higher in the future.

Glass

Almost all the glass that is in a solar panel can be re-used. Up to 95% can be reused.

Metal

All the metal is recovered and re-moulded for new panel frames.

Remaining Elements

All the remaining material is placed in a thermal furnace processing unit to break up the material between the cell elements. The plastic residue evaporates due to the high temperature. And, this results in the silicon being ready for the next stage of processing.

The End Goal

After the thermal treatment, the green hardware is physically separated. 80% of these can readily be reused, while the remainder is further refined. Silicon particles—called wafers—are etched away using acid. Broken wafers are melted to be used again for manufacturing new silicon modules, resulting in an 85% recycling rate of the silicon material.

Now that we know that there is an efficient way to recycle solar PV panels, you may ask what benefits can this bring to the economy. Recycling more panels will create more job opportunities in the green tech sector but will also contribute to approx. 15 Billion euros in recoverable raw materials like silicon for semiconductors, chips etc.

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