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Solar panel recycling: Problems of afterlife

The United States has over 150 gigawatts of solar installed; about 400 million solar panels that you could cover over four Districts of Columbia with. Nothing lasts eternally, and in 20-30 years they may all end up in the landfill. Is there anything we can do about it? Can solar panels be recycled? Let’s shed some light on the topic.

Lifetime of a solar panel

The surest way to figure out the minimum lifespan of a PV module is to check their warranty. Standard product warranties range between 10 and 25 years for crystalline solar panels and between 2 and 3 years for flexible ones. This does not mean that your panels will break once the warranty period is over. Standard home solar panels in a rigid frame last 25-30 years on average.

Solar panels degrade over time

Solar panels degrade throughout their lifetime. A degradation rate is usually shown as a graph in the panel’s spec sheet. It ranges from 1% to 0.2%, with an average of around 0.8%, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Take an average 400W solar panel. During the first year of operation, its performance will decrease by 2-3%. Every year starting with year two, it will lose another 0.8% of its original output. After 10 years, this panel will operate at 90%, meaning 360W output.

Some try to sell old panels

Sooner or later, you might decide to get rid of your old solar panels. If they are still working, you can try to sell them and partially cover the cost of a new system. You won’t make much money from it though – used panels cost 2-3 times less than new ones. A new panel may cost around $200, while a used one may be resold for less than $100.

Buying second-hand panels is also risky. You don’t know how the panel has been used and maintained, or whether there are any hidden breakages and defects not seen with the naked eye. This does not mean that the seller may try to fool you and sell a broken panel. Sometimes he or she may not be aware of them.

Don’t forget about the degradation rate. A used panel is cheaper, but it also works worse. To cover your power needs, you’ll need more panels, and the gains won’t be as great. Add the lack of warranty and ask yourself whether it’s worth the effort.

Afterlife: Disassembling and recycling of a solar panel

Solar panel in section

One way or another, there comes an end for every solar panel. Can there still be something inside that we can use? Let’s pick a solar panel apart.

A typical crystalline silicon solar panel contains, according to the Institute for Sustainable Futures:

76% glass (panel surface)
10% polymer (encapsulant and back-sheet foil)
8% aluminum (frame)
5% silicon (solar cells)
1% copper (interconnectors)
> 0.1% silver (contact lines)
other metals — e.g. tin and lead

Separation and recycling of these components can significantly minimize waste, recover valuable materials, and reduce the environmental impact of their disposal. About 80% of materials used to make a solar panel can be reused, according to estimates.

Despite the high potential recycling rate, 90-95% of end-of-life solar panels in the US are still sent to landfills, according to NREL. The answer is pretty straightforward – recycling solar panels is economically unviable.

It’s cheaper to throw solar panels out

$15-45

cost of recycling one panel 

The recycling process itself is not as simple as it may seem at first glance. We can easily separate the aluminum frame, glass, and plastic junction box. Recycling of these materials is already a well-established industry, but they don’t cost much.

$3-5

cost of recovered materials

The remainder of the module is a different story. EVA encapsulants and plastic backsheet are difficult to recycle and they also have virtually zero value. Solar cells are even more difficult to handle. Getting them out of the encapsulant requires high temperatures to loosen the adhesive.

$1-5

cost of sending a solar panel to landfill

The cells contain not only silicon but also tiny little fractions of valuable metals like silver and copper as well as toxic metals like lead and cadmium, that need to be separated. For the most part, they are not being recycled in the US today. The value of the recovered materials is nothing compared to the original materials.

Governments step in

The fact that the US does not have a federal leadership on solar panel disposal, recycling and treatment further compounds the problem. End-of-life solar panel’s fate is in the hands of the states and several private companies that are ready to take on this problem.

The European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive includes provisions for solar panel recycling that mandates the manufacturers to pay recycling fees used to subsidize disposal. For the EU business or homeowners, solar panel disposal at the end of their life goes for little to no cost. The US anticipates a similar program by 2025.

Future of solar recycling problem

The installation pace of the solar industry has ramped up only in the last decade. Back in 2010 the world only had a little over 40 gigawatts of solar installed. That’s why today the volume of end-of-life solar panels is relatively low.

The global solar capacity has grown 25 times since then and reached 1 terawatt. The US alone has over 70 gigawatts of solar installed. Sitting and waiting for 400 million solar panels to reach their end of life could be dangerous. Figuring out a solution requires a big team effort though. Relevant laws must be passed by the government, solar panel recycling companies need to be established, and convenient and free recycling programs for companies and homeowners must be developed. We need to solve this problem now and look for ways to make the solar panel life cycle a real cycle.

Years of experience in translation and a love of nature help Julia find the right words to encourage going solar. She joined the team in 2023 and is happy to make her contribution to a greener future.

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