What happens to solar panels at the end of their lifecycle?

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While it might be the last thing on your mind, given that you're likely reading this blog as a prospective solar customer, someday far in the future (at least 25 years from now), your panels will have to be recycled. Or, as an environmentally-conscious consumer, it might be among the first thing on your mind. That is, what happens to those sheets of glass, metal, and electronics once they served their purpose of providing a quarter century of clean power. Can they even be recycled? And how would that work?

First, the answer is yes, they can be recycled. Most solar panels are silicon-based, their primary base materials being glass, plastic, and alumnium, all of which are currently recycled en masse.

Yet, as is the case for all much of the recycling industry, the challenge lies in breaking down the panels into their base, reusable components. That requires advanced separation machinery to the glass from the aluminum and the various chemicals around it.

As for reusability, the aluminum frame is 100 percent recyclable, the glass around 95 percent; 85% of etched away silicon wafers can be reused as well.

In the United States, panel recycling is done at a general recycling facility, like Westchester Recycling Services Inc. in Elmsford. Meanwhile, in Europe, where the solar market is more mature, specialty solar panel reycling operations are coming into their own.

Given that the International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that rouhgly 78 million metric tons of panels will have been decommission by 2050, and that 6 million metric tons of new solar e-waste will be generated annually, the recycling industry is sure to catch up, both for economic and envionrmental reasons; solar panels can leak lead into landfills when they break down.

The case of Europe

The EU is already pushing for a "circular business model" where by solar firms, like us, take back those panels and re-purpose them for low electrical demand projects, like powering an e-bike state, or reselling them at a steep discount.

Here, PV Cycle, a Belgium-based non-profit promoting recycling in the solar industry, shows off its current panel recycling process: