When Solar Panels Die, Can They Be Recycled?

The world is currently witnessing a significant surge in solar power. In the past decade, solar power generation in the U.S. has grown by a staggering 170 times, increasing from 1.21 TWh in 2010 to 204.3 TWh in 2022.

Solar panels are the cornerstone of solar energy systems. On average, they have a lifespan of 25-30 years. As a result, some panels that were installed at the beginning of the century are now approaching the end of their operational life.

So, the question arises: what happens to these retired panels? Unfortunately, the majority of them currently end up in landfills. Here's why:

Why can’t we recycle solar panels?

Solar panels are designed to withstand harsh outdoor conditions due to their robust construction. They are made from multiple layers of different materials, including glass, silicon, and plastic, which are fused together. Most recycling facilities don’t have the technology to separate these layers and retrieve useful materials.

Also, recycling solar panels is more expensive than tossing them in landfills. It costs $15 to $45 to recycle a solar panel vs just a few dollars to dispose of them in landfills.

The lack of federal incentives or requirements to recycle used panels further hampers their recycling efforts.

The growing concern about solar panel disposal

The current lack of efforts in solar panel recycling may not be a significant problem at the moment, but it has the potential to become one in the near future. Solar panel installation and disposal are progressing at a rate that could turn into a problem of 54 to 160 million metric tons by 2050.

Considering this from a broader perspective, it will still be a relatively smaller problem than other waste streams. By 2050, we are projected to have 70,000 million metric tons of municipal waste, 45,000 million metric tons of coal ash, and 12,000 million metric tons of municipal waste.

So, we should continue our transition to solar energy, but it is also important to consider the end-of-life of solar panels. This presents an opportunity to implement reuse, take-back, and recycling programs to prevent these panels from being disposed of in landfills.

Solar panel recycling efforts are gaining momentum

The U.S. Department of Energy has allocated $20 million for solar sustainability in 2023. Additionally, states like Washington and California have passed bills to ensure the safe disposal and recycling of solar products at the end of their life cycle.

Startups such as Solarcycle and We Recycle Solar have developed advanced recycling units that can dismantle solar panels and reuse their raw materials.

In addition to recycling, there are other global solutions for dealing with solar panels at the end of their lifecycle. These include using them as building materials for low-cost small housing units or refurbishing them for low-end energy use, such as in farms.

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