Solar Panel Recycling: What Happens to Solar Panel Wastes When Their Lifespan Is Over?
Photovoltaics is one of the more sustainable and eco-friendly ways to generate electricity. With the use of photovoltaic modules or solar panels, the resulting energy comes solely from the sun and thus from an inexhaustible source. That is why solar PV also plays such a major role in global energy production, and can help to reduce the impacts of man-made climate change.
However, despite the CO2 neutrality of solar power, we mustn’t forget that the service life of solar panels is not infinite. Sooner or later, every photovoltaic system has to be replaced and usually, they are disposed of after 20 to 30 years. With this, the question of solar panel waste disposal arises.
Garbage is a daunting challenge that humanity faces. Electronic waste is particularly problematic due to its toxic components. Burning garbage creates harmful gases and if people are irresponsible with their garbage disposal, it will spread across the planet - polluting the Earth, the flora and fauna and the overall quality of life.
So we begin to ask, how does solar panel disposal actually work? What are solar panels made of? Are their individual components environmentally friendly and recyclable? Can solar panels be recycled?
PV Panel Recycling: Solar Panel Waste Disposal
Private individuals who own small solar PV systems on their rooftops would usually bring their solar modules to the nearest solar panel recycling companies in their region. That is the easiest way to dispose of their used solar PV, but of course, it's interesting to know what happens to the modules afterward.
The European WEEE directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment states that manufacturers must take back their old solar modules, which is then done in cooperation with the recycling centers. The German implementation of the EU directive is the Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act that came into force in 2015.
There is now an industry-wide take-back system called PV Cycle, which oversees the organization of module and cell recycling for over 300 manufacturers. If a larger amount of solar modules has to be disposed of, operators can contact the manufacturer. This then has the modules picked up directly via PV Cycle.
What Solar PV Systems Are Made Of And What Can Be Recycled
A solar PV system consists of several solar modules (also called solar panels), which are composed of individual solar cells. These consist mainly of silicon, but also contain small amounts of the metals silver, indium, gallium, tellurium and selenium.
The solar cells are embedded in plastic from above and below. A solar glass plate lies above and the whole thing is stabilized by an aluminum frame.
In summary, the main components of a solar module are:
- Glass (solar glass plate)
- Aluminum (frame)
- Plastic (embedding the solar cells)
- Silicon (solar cells)
These materials are generally easy to recycle. Glass is actually not a problem at all: making new glass from old is now common, and glass can be infinitely recycled. The Federal Environment Agency provides interesting information on the subject of glass recycling. Nevertheless, the glass from solar systems is currently only processed into glass wool, at which point it comes to the end of its recycling journey. (Source: Tagesschau, 26.09.21)
When it comes to recycling, aluminum is generally not as straightforward as glass. But the aluminum frames from solar panels, in particular, are reprocessed using an elaborate refinement process.
Solar module recycling is complicated due to the silicon embedded in plastic and other metal components. The separation of plastic and metals is very complex - so complex that these solar systems components usually end up in waste incineration plants.
Solar Panel Recycling: Can Solar Panels Be 100% Recycled in the Future?
The need to recycle solar modules has so far been low. Because the first few solar systems went into operation 20-30 years ago and many of them are still in use today. Essentially, the number of solar parks and photovoltaic systems on rooftops has only risen widely in recent years and all these solar modules will only have to be replaced in the coming years and decades.
Until then, a lot can still be done to improve the recycling of solar modules. The big task here is to separate the valuable raw materials from which the solar cell is made from the plastic layer surrounding it so that nothing has to be lost in the waste incineration plant.
That could work with systems that allow the plastics to evaporate at high temperatures of up to 900 degrees. This then releases gases such as methane, butane and propane, but the metals from the solar cell can be accessed and recycled. Edison magazine reported that a research group at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB in Stuttgart has done research and carried out some experiments. The goal of obtaining 95% of the material from the solar cell has been achieved - but only to a small extent for the time being. This process has so far not been economical on a larger scale.
But this approach should definitely be pursued further so that the future for solar panel recycling is set for the first massive waste disposal season that is expected in the next five years.
In order to increase the environmental viability of a solar PV system, a good balance of these two are necessary: extensive recycling as well as extending the life cycle of a solar panel to a maximum extent. Science must now work with innovative technology companies to ensure that the former becomes even better and more efficient.
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We at PADCON take care of the lifecycle and improve the overall efficiency of your solar panels. Our PADCON Float Controller is designed to prevent the PID effect and Tco-corrosion that can possibly damage the solar modules. It is a powerful solution to protect solar PV plants from the very beginning. Check out PID Solutions to know more.