Solar Panel Recycling
The increasing population of the planet also results in an increasing waste. Soon enough, waste will become so problematic that it will make the planet’s inhabitation challenging if not addressed immediately. This is why it is important that we try to recycle as much as we can. This is not only applicable to our regular waste but to our renewable energy agents as well.
Solar panel recycling is becoming more and more popular as these panels are usually expensive and hard to dispose of. Therefore, the smart way to manage their number and save on costs is by using them again. What does this mean and how will this work? This article will explain how we can reuse the panels, explain the parts of it that can be recycled, when we should recycle, and what the options are for recycling.
Recycling Solar Panels
It is great that more and more people are going solar. This means that more and more people are investing in renewable energy and reducing their carbon footprint. Unfortunately, like any machine, solar panels do not last forever. Their lifespan is only between 10 to 30 years. Therefore, at the end of 1-3 decades, the panels (along with the rest of the solar power system) may need to be replaced and the parts disposed of.
While solar use is eco-friendly, solar panel disposal is far from environmentally healthy. These cells contain heavy metals (depending on the type) which can be harmful to the health of humans, plants, and animals if mixed into bodies of water. If not in streams and rivers, they may end up in landfills and take years before they decompose naturally.
It is also reported by the International Renewable Agency (IRENA) that reusing these panels for other purposes by 2050 can save about $15 billion, a significant amount that can be used for other initiatives to protect the planet. It is clear that there’s a need to make wise use of the expired panels, so it doesn’t add up to the planet’s already overflowing waste.
What Parts of Solar Panels Can Be Recycled?
If you’re now sold on the idea of recycling solar panels, then you must next know which parts can be recycled and what they can be reused for. As you may already know, a solar-powered system is made of various pieces aside from the actual solar cells. The solar cells are made of silicon, either in its pure (monocrystalline), mixed (polycrystalline), or non-crystalline (thin-amorphous) form. These silicon-based parts can undergo a specific process to be recycled, that is, disassembled, etched, and melted.
The solar-based system is made possible through the addition of a metal framing, glass sheets, wires, and Plexiglas to the solar cells. The metal framing could be made of a variety of metal types like lead, copper, gallium, cadmium, and aluminum. For the purpose of solar panel recycling, these can definitely be used for other purposes if extracted from the system well. Wires can be used for other electrical setups as long as the metal inside them is well-insulated. The glass sheets can be reheated and melted and utilized for the making of other furniture pieces or for construction purposes. If one becomes creative, each bit of the system can be used for various purposes and need not go to waste.
When Do Solar Panels Need to Be Recycled?
How can we tell when the system has reached its end of life and can be recycled or disposed of? Like every good thing, the system can only last for a few decades. If you’re lucky, you can have the system for 30 years, and then its parts may need replacement if you want it to keep working.
If your system has monitoring capabilities, then you can easily tell whether it’s no longer at its best as the efficiency will be much lower than the original capacity, which is 20% or more. However, if your system doesn’t have monitoring capabilities, then you may need to consult a professional to gauge whether the panels should now be replaced. You don’t want to do it prematurely, as you don’t want to waste years’ worth of free energy if you don’t have to.
You don’t want to keep it running when it’s dead, either, as you may not be getting the efficiency that your household requires. Therefore, it is wise to consult solar experts to determine when it’s time to let go and when to start shopping for new parts, if not a new system. This will also help you plan how you get the system’s parts for recycling and how to dispose of solar panels properly.
Recycling Options for Solar Panels
Now that we know which parts are to be recycled and when we should start to think about the disposal of solar panels, let’s now look at what the options are for this process. The process involved will differ depending on the material used for your panels. If you’re using mono or polycrystalline panels, then the process involved will be the silicon-based process. The first step is to disassemble the product and separate the aluminum and glass bases. A high percentage of the glass can be reutilized. The metal components, on the other hand, can be utilized to remodel the cell frames.
After this, the rest of the materials undergo thermal processing where they’re heated to up to 500 degrees Celsius to enable the encapsulating plastic to evaporate and get the cells readied for the next stage of the process. Then, the resultant green hardware is segregated and the silicon particles (referred to as wafers) are carved out through strong acid so they can be melted and used again. Therefore, all the parts of the system are utilized and the waste is minimized if not eliminated completely.
The process for the thin-film based solar panel recycle is quite different in that it’s quicker. The amorphous silicon is placed in a shredder, then to a hammer mill where it is broken down to particles less than 4 to 5 millimeters so that the lamination is broken and can be detached from the system. The resultant material is solid and liquid in form, and the solid components are kept rotating within the tube so the liquid can be extracted from the container.
The liquid components are dried out and precipitated as part of the purification process. The solid components are tainted with interlayer materials and the resultant material is rinsed. The process produces semi-conductor materials that can be reused for other purposes.
Are solar panels recyclable and is it wise to have them undergo a recycling process? It is clear that the answer to the question is a resounding yes. With waste comes problems unless that waste is transformed into something useful. A significant percentage of the solar system components can be recycled from the silicon-based components to the metal framing, wires, and glass.
Instead of these components going to waste when thrown out together, they may be separated, segregated, and used for other industries, from manufacturing to construction. Therefore, after using your system for decades, you can consult recycling organizations like Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) or Veolia and get your system disposed of properly. If you’re lucky, you can even get returns for turning these materials in, which you can use to purchase and install a new solar-powered system for your home. It takes effort, yes, but if it’s for the planet, then it’s definitely worth it.