Solar panel clusters flickering in the sun have become more common in the United States as the solar industry has grown rapidly over the past decade. Solar panels can be found almost anywhere: perched in roadside fields or mounted on the roofs of businesses and homes.
Like wind turbines, solar panels are a growing and evolving form of renewable energy. However, the way solar panel modules are manufactured can present challenges when it comes to recycling or reusing their materials. This is all the more true as the components of the first generation of panels are approaching their end of life.
Most solar panels have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years. And as the solar market grows, the volume of photovoltaic (PV) panels to be disposed of will also increase. According to MIT Technology Review, it is estimated that around 8 million metric tons of decommissioned solar panels could accumulate worldwide by 2030. This number could rise to 80 million by 2050.
What’s in a solar panel?
Solar technology works by converting sunlight into electrical energy which can be used to generate electricity or be stored in batteries or using thermal storage. When the sun shines on a solar panel, the energy from the sunlight is absorbed by the photovoltaic cells in the panel. This energy creates electric charges that move in response to an internal electric field within the cell, causing electricity to flow.
A solar panel is assembled in layers and composed of photovoltaic cells, inverters, racking equipment and other components. Most of these materials can be recycled, such as the glass and aluminum frame, which make up 80% of a typical PV panel. The difficulty lies in its dismantling. This is because the adhesives and sealants used to protect the panels from the outside elements make separating them difficult.
Another challenge is the small amounts of hazardous materials and heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic and silver found in most panels. These materials are toxic and can leach into soil or groundwater if disposed of in a landfill. The US Resource Conservation and Recovery Act establishes rules for how to responsibly manage and dispose of materials.
Although there is a small amount of material in a solar panel that cannot be recycled, recycling technology already exists to reduce or reuse approximately 80% of the material in a solar PV module.
Regulation: Refurbish, Reuse or Recycle
Just as cell phones and laptops can be refurbished, solar panels can also be restored and given a second life for use elsewhere. This requires a supplier to have a program to accept panels and then refurbish them for reuse for other purposes; a panel that is no longer viable for use in a utility’s solar farm, for example, could be repurposed for re-use in a private residence.
Programs to buy back and reuse solar panels are already in place abroad. In the European Union, a directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment obliges any importer or manufacturer of photovoltaic panels to collect and process end-of-life panels. French environmental solutions provider Veolia has customers across Europe and has already implemented a strong recycling program for photovoltaic panels.
In the United States, there are currently no federal regulations that would require the recycling of PV modules, but illegal disposal of any hazardous waste in the panels can result in hefty fines. In March of this year, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released an action plan that provides funding to the department’s Solar Energy Technology Office (SETO) to research and propose a strategy to establish a safe, responsible and economical end of life. life practices for PV products.
Under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy will receive $20 million to be awarded to eligible entities such as institutions of higher learning , non-profit organizations or other agencies for research, development, demonstration and commercialization projects. The goal is to find innovative and practical ways to increase the reuse and recycling of solar energy technologies.
Additionally, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the national trade association for the U.S. solar industry, has been working with solar panel recycling partners since 2016. According to SEIA, its recycling partners have already processed millions of pounds PV modules and related products. equipment.
Public and private solar recycling programs
As the federal government implements its strategy, some states are taking early action to keep renewable energy components out of landfills. For example, starting in 2021, California specifies photovoltaic panel material as universal waste. The designation streamlines waste management options so that the material must be recycled and reused. North Carolina, New Jersey and Arizona are also advancing legislation requiring the recycling of end-of-life panels or the creation of buy-back programs.
In the private sector, We Recycle Solar is a company that partners with manufacturers who need PV material disposal services. Based in Phoenix, We Recycle Solar is present in several American cities as well as in others in Belgium, Japan and South Korea.
FabTech Solar Solutions is another Arizona-based solar recycling and refurbishing company that will credit customers for modules that are no longer useful to them, but still have some monetary value. Manufacturers such as SunPower and First Solar also run global recycling programs for their customers.
As the number of solar projects continues to grow, it is equally important to expand the ways the raw materials inside solar panels are reused or recycled.
As the demand for renewable energy sources grows, using an experienced engineer-procure-construct (EPC) partner will ensure your project moves forward on time and within budget.