Can solar panels be recycled?

Many of us are making the move towards solar panels to reduce our energy bills and create greater energy security but another great benefit is in reducing our carbon footprint. So, if we get solar panels for environmental reasons then it is important to consider the long-term environmental impact of our decision making. So here we answer the question: can solar panels be recycled?

Solar panels have a life expectancy of up to 30 years +

Firstly, let’s start with some really good news! Solar panels have a guaranteed life-expectancy of over 25 years, which means that panels that are fitted now are expected to last up to 30 years with only a small drop in efficiency. Just give them a clean once or twice a year and they should serve you well. But when the time does come for a replacement of solar panels, or if you have inherited an older system that is likely to need replacement at some point don’t fret because the infrastructure is now in place to recycle the panels effectively.

Manufacturers predict a maximum 20 per cent loss in efficiency over the life of the solar panels. This is suggested to be up to 10 per cent over the first 10 years reaching 20 per cent by 25 years. This is guaranteed by the majority of manufacturers.

In reality, the drop in efficiency is actually much lower at only  6 to 8 per cent after 25 years. The manufacturers guarantee is 25 years but the actual life-span of the solar panels is potentially much longer, perhaps even reaching 30 to 40 years.

Disposal of solar panels

When the time does come to dispose of solar panels the manufacturers are bound by law to fulfil specific legal requirements and recycling standards in order to make sure that solar panels do not become a burden to the environment. And technologies to recycle solar panels are developing rapidly. Solar panel producers, working with governmental institutions, have come up with ways to tackle solar waste.

So, how can solar panels be recycled?

It is predicted that if recycling processes were not put in place, there would be 60 million tons of PV panels waste lying in landfills by the year 2050. This obviously requires a coordinated effort from manufacturers and governments to sign post a process that works well and is mutually beneficial. But most of the solar panel and associated batteries are recyclable.

Recycling processes for photovoltaic panels

There are two main types of solar panels, requiring different recycling approaches. Both types—silicon based and thin-film based—can be recycled using distinct industrial processes. Currently, silicon based panels are more common, though that does not mean that there would not be great value in the materials of thin-film based cells. Research suggests that a 96% recycling efficiency can be reached, but the aim of the industry is to continue to improve this figure.

Silicon based solar PV panel recycling

Silicon based PV panels require normal flat glass treatment and no special removal of the semi-conductor layer.

  1. Remove cables, plug and semiconductor
  2. Separate aluminium and glass from the PV module
  3. Remove labels
  4. Reuse or recycle the EVA film and recover chemical elements such as cadmium and selenium
  5. Separate into fractions (EVA film, Aluminium, Wafer, Cable and plastic plug, Semiconductor, Glass)
  6. Recycle the glass fraction in a smelter
Solar panel recycling process components
Solar panel recycling process

The recycling process of silicon-based PV panels starts with disassembling the actual product to separate aluminium and glass parts. Almost all (95%) of the glass can be reused, while all external metal parts are used for re-molding cell frames. The remainder materials are treated at 500°C in a thermal processing unit in order to ease up the binding between the cell elements. Due to the extreme heat, the encapsulating plastic evaporates, leaving the silicon cells ready to be further processed. The supporting technology ensures that not even this plastic is wasted, therefore it is reused as a heat source for further thermal processing.

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 85% recycling rate of the silicon material.

Thin-film based solar panel recycling

In comparison, thin-film based panels are processed more drastically. The first step is to put them in a shredder. Afterwards, a hammermill ensures that all particles are no larger than 4-5mm, which is the size where the lamination keeping the inside materials together breaks, and hence can be removed. Contrary to silicon-based PV panels, the remaining substance consists of both solid and liquid material. To separate these, a rotating screw is utilised, which basically keeps the solid parts rotating inside a tube, while the liquid drips into a container.

Liquids go through a precipitation and dewatering process to ensure purity. The resulting substance goes through metal processing to completely separate the different semiconductor materials. The latter step depends on the actual technology used when producing the panels; however, on average 95% of the semiconductor material is reused.

Solid matters are contaminated with so-called interlayer materials, which are lighter in mass and can be removed through a vibrating surface. Finally, the material goes through rinsing. What is left behind is pure glass, saving 90% of the glass elements for easy re-manufacturing.

UK companies are recycling solar panels
UK companies are recycling solar panels

The future benefits of solar waste management

A solar panel recycling infrastructure is developing to manage the large volumes of PV modules that will be disposed in near future.

Not only will Solar PV recycling create more green job opportunities but also approximately £11 billion in recoverable value by 2050. This influx will make it possible to produce 2 billion new panels without the need to invest in raw materials. This means that there will be the capacity of producing around 630 GW of energy just from reusing previously used materials.

Companies such as recyclesolar.co.uk , based in North Lincolnshire, offer a full collection and recycling service serving the whole of the UK and Ireland. They collect panels, inverters and batteries too for recycling. They can decommission, dismantle and recycle.

Thanks to constant solar equipment price drops of up to 80% in recent years, more and more households and businesses are choosing to invest in solar power systems. As a result, even more economic opportunities in the solar cell recycling sector will emerge.

5 reasons to love solar power

Increasingly, we are getting enquiries from customers who are looking intelligently and holistically at their home heating, hot water and power consumption. They want control, they want security, they want the best value long term and they know that the way that we use and consume energy has to change. Here are 5 reasons to love solar power and why installing it has never made more sense…

1. Solar is the cheapest form of energy

As consumers we are increasingly concerned about the source of electricity for homes and businesses. It is an economic and a geo political concern. So, having dithered a little in recent years about the benefits of renewable energy, and dipped a toe in the renewable pond for the benefit of the FIT (Feed-in Tariff), the recent shift has led to a serious rethink about the way we consume and create power. Cheaper, cleaner electricity is better electricity, and solar energy is the cheapest way to create electricity.

The solar energy industry is going to continue to expand in the forthcoming years. In the UK. According to the UK government’s 2020 report, there were roughly 970,000 UK homes with solar panel installations. This means only 3.3% of the 29 million homes in the UK were generating electricity from solar panels – that’s a huge number that could still benefit form a solar installation.

So much room for growth in the UK

2. The technology has never been more affordable

Unlike electricity and gas prices, the price of solar technology and now battery storage has actually come down in price significantly. Added to this is the zero rate of VAT on solar that was introduced in the UK, with effect from 1 April 2022 until 31 March 2027. That’s 0% VAT on supply and installation of solar panels for homes and businesses for the next 5 years.

Due to the increase in demand, and the advancement in the technology, Solar PV prices have dropped globally by 82% and are continuing to fall. That means Solar has never been more affordable and accessible.

The Solar industry has come a long way and battery storage solutions now mean you can store the energy produced by your Solar panels during the day, to be used whenever your home demands it. This revolutionary technology, means you can essentially live off-grid, and be completely energy independent.

What’s more, with companies like myenergi creating clever kit that allows power to be diverted in the home from solar to car charging, water heating and power use the control is now in consumers hands.

3. Utility bills aren’t getting any lower

A solar energy system opens the door for electricity independence, rather than an ongoing monthly expense. After your purchase, every kWh of solar energy, that you can make use of, produced by the system is yours free of charge. In addition to onsite clean energy production, solar panels also help protect against time of use tariffs.

Bills are getting more expensive

With this in mind, it almost always makes sense to “own” your electricity production. Individuals can all view solar installations as a wise investment for long-term clean energy production. There is no doubt that utility companies are looking to renewable sources for some of their production but they are still in control of pricing and supply.

Some companies, such as Octopus Energy, are offering up to 7.5p per kWh on the SEG (Smart Export Guarantee) but the real benefit now in solar is how we use the maximum amount of the energy that we produce effectively.

4. The most abundant source of energy is the sun

It shows up every day and it’s not going away! Unlike fossil fuels, which we know are finite the sun is the ultimate, most awesome, never ending ball of energy – the energy is there, we just need to harness it. And we have a way to do it! That’s a result.

Solar power is a renewable and infinite energy source – as long as the sun continues to shine then energy will be released.

An infinite power source

5. Using solar power reduces your carbon footprint

Another clean energy positive for solar power is that, unlike the burning of fossil fuels, the conversion of sunlight into power creates no harmful greenhouse gases.

The carbon footprint of solar panels is already quite small, as they last for 25 years plus with no loss in efficiency – just give them a clean annually and they should continue to work their magic. And the materials used in the panels are increasingly recycled, so the carbon footprint will continue to shrink.

So there you have it, just 5 of the many reasons to love solar!