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CHERP's Solar Panels - a Step in the Right Direction for Panel Recycling

With renewable energy on the rise, increasing questions about the lifecycle and disposal of solar panels, wind blades, and related materials have arisen among manufacturers and consumers alike. The lifespan of a solar panel today is roughly 30 years - a significant amount of time for individuals to benefit from low-cost, efficient energy.

What happens when that runs out, however? Should solar panels simply be discarded? Or are there ways to repurpose them and bring them back to life?

Concern over safe disposal of solar panels has received attention by environmental researchers, medical professionals, and the general public. In 2016, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IREANA) estimated as many as 78 metric tons of solar waste around the world by 2050. As a result, increased attention was paid to what might happen to potentially toxic substances found within that detritus.

More recently, the International Energy Agency Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme (IEA-PVPS) has indicated that the disposal of solar into landfills is safe for the environment and has relatively few health risks. The IEA-PVPS does not, however, endorse simply throwing solar panels away once they reach their end of life. Rather, the IEA-PVPS supports recycling as much of the panels as possible.

At the heart of the IEA-PVPS assessment are the materials used to produce solar panels. Solar panels comprise silicon, glass, plastic, and metal. Recycling the glass, plastic, and metal used to make solar panels seems somewhat easy given existing practices and processes in the United States, but no facilities dedicated to solar panel recycling exist in the nation (solar panel recycling is required in Europe).

Many U.S. manufacturers and solar systems producers take on recycling efforts, as have private companies and organizations, albeit in limited numbers. States are also looking into incentivising solar panel recycling. As recently as July 2020, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control indicated it would categorize solar panels as a type of hazardous waste called “universal waste,” making it easier to streamline the recycling process. The designation also creates a clear path to formalize regulations for solar panel recycling, a move that could have implications at the federal level.

Glass, plastic, and metal (usually aluminum from the frame) can be sent to companies that recycle them, although not without cost. Because of this, decommissioned solar panels end up in landfills or sit in warehouses awaiting options for more affordable recycling.

The first step to recycling a solar panel is simply deconstructing it. Once taken apart, glass is grinded up for reuse, metal is melted, and plastic is recaptured for the next generation of panels. The biggest challenge in solar panel recycling is the silicon solar cells themselves. The most common technique used to recycle silicon solar cells is to shred them into strips to remove other components - polymers, laminates, etc. - or melting them down for the same purpose.

The need for widespread recycling of solar panels in the U.S. remains a few years off, but the future of solar energy depends on making the technology as green as possible. Recycling materials offers an additional layer of efficiency and environmentalism to solar power. So, too, does using or reusing discarded solar cells that still have time left in their lifecycle.


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