The need for an alternative to fossil fuel power is becoming increasingly evident each passingday,which has led to an upsurge in people obtaining home solar panels. According to the experts at Vivint Solar, the average lifespan of a home solar panels system is 25 years, but a well-maintained system can last longer. But what happens when these solar panel systems reach the end of their life. With so many people installing solar panels now, are we going to see piles and piles of parts cluttering up landfill sites in the next 25-30 years?
Can Solar Panels be Recycled?
Solar panels are either thin film or silicon based, with silicon being by far the most common. They can be recycled, but the cost of recycling is much higher than it is to just send them to landfill. And because of this expense, there are no laws in the U.S. that states solar panels must be recycled (apart from a state law in Washington).
Laws in the EU require solar panel producers to ensure that their products are recycled. The process of recycling is different for the different types of panel system. Silicon based photo-voltaic (PV) panels must be disassembled in order to separate the glass from the aluminum. Most of the glass can be recycled and external metal parts can be recycled and remolded to create new cell frames. Thermal processing can then be used to separate the binding between the cells.
The process of recycling thin film-based panels is much more extensive. The panels are first placed in a shredder before being put through a hammermill to ensure that each particle is no bigger than 5mm. Solid and liquid parts must then be separated.
Why Aren’t Solar Panels Recycled in the United States?
In the EU, the above processes result in up to 95% recycling of silicon and glass. Here in the U.S., the process of recycling is different with panels dealt with in a rather more crude manner. This usually means that the most valuable parts of the panels, the silver and silicon, are not recovered.
An article on Gristreports that currentlyonly around ten percent of solar panels are recycled in the U.S. And according to Sam Vanderhoof, CEO of Recycle PV Solar, the cost of recycling solar panels here is between $12 and $25, but the amount that the recycler receives from recovered glass, copper, and aluminum is around $3. When compared with the cost of less than $1 to dump solar panels in landfill, it is easy to see why recycling numbers are so low.
Will We See a Change Soon?
The good news, according to an article on The Verge, is that discarded solar panels are set to get more valuable. The article quotes analysis from Rystad Energy that expects the value of solar panel recyclable materials to boom in the coming years. In fact, they expect the value to increase from $170 million in 2022 to $2.7 billion by 2030.
The reason for this expected rise is the growing demand for solar energy and a decrease in the availability of parts. Moreover, because of advances in technology, it is expected to become easier for the valuable materials in older panels to recover.
Solar panels last for around 25-30 years after which many are sent to landfill here in the U.S. rather than being recycled. With no laws requiring manufacturers to recycle old panels and the cost of recycling far higher than dumping, it is no surprise. But it is expected that this will change over the next decade as demand for solar energy grows and the recycling process becomes easier.