The energy sector has seen a significant transformation over the last few years, with a clear move towards cleaner energy sources. However, not everything that appears to be sustainable remains for time immemorial.
This is one of the main concerns regarding the use of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels for solar power generation. Even though it is a long-term, renewable energy source that relies solely on solar radiation to generate electricity, they have a fixed shelf life.
But, the good news is that PV solar panels, even after being out of use, may still be of help. Thus, we should make sure that no functional solar panels end up in the trash. Don’t throw away your old solar panels; recycle them instead!
In this article, we will talk about how we can recycle old solar panels.
- 1 Is it Possible to Recycle Solar Panels?
- 2 How Long do Solar Panels Last?
- 3 Getting Rid of Solar Panels
- 4 Recycling Process of Solar Panels
- 5 Advantages of Recycling Solar Panels
- 6 What Can I do to Extend the Life of My Solar Panels?
- 7 Solar Panels Efficiency Improvement Techniques
- 8 Final Words
Is it Possible to Recycle Solar Panels?
Yes, it is! Solar panels can be recycled. They’re made almost entirely of recyclable materials like aluminum, glass, and silicon. In other words, your green energy equipment will continue to be green even after it has finished its work.
People already know how to dismantle solar panels and recycle their parts; the only thing left is to expand the sector in preparation for the recycling process of solar panels. In the UK, it is illegal to dispose of solar panel waste in a landfill.
Assuming all goes as planned, a new generation of solar panels can be constructed from the scraps of their predecessors’ parts by the late 2030s. Exciting, right?
How Long do Solar Panels Last?
Studies show that solar panels have a 30-year life expectancy before they need to be decommissioned.
The power capacity of solar panels may decline by 20% during their lifespan. There is a 10% loss in their efficiency in the first 10-12 years of their use and a 20% decrease in efficiency at the 25-year mark. The majority of manufacturers back up these claims with factual data.
However, research reveals that after 25 years, the efficiency of PV only decreases by 6-8%. As a result, the useful life of solar panels may be substantially greater than officially claimed. High-quality PV panels have a life expectancy of 30 to 40 years and can continue to work even after that, but with reduced efficiency.
This goes to show that solar panels are pretty durable. They’re expensive, yes. But they are an investment for the long haul.
Getting Rid of Solar Panels
From a legal standpoint, PV panel trash is considered general waste. They are not considered e-waste under the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE). This directive and other legislative frameworks thus regulate their waste management.
Due to regulatory obligations and strict recycling norms, solar panel manufacturers must ensure that their products do not become a burden on the environment. Thus, new methods for recycling solar panels have begun to emerge. Some photovoltaic manufacturers have even teamed up with government agencies to develop solutions to the problem of solar waste.
Recycling Process of Solar Panels
Numerous technologies have been developed as a result of research on recycling solar panels. Some can recycle as much as 96% of the waste, but the goal is to improve efficiency.
The solar power business is dominated by two types of panels: silicon-based (which accounts for 92% of the market) and thin-film (7% of the market). The recycling procedure differs for each.
1. Silicon-Based Solar Panels
The process of recycling silicon-based solar panels starts with material separation. Solar panels are made up of several types of materials. Thus, it is essential to separate them.
The panel is dismantled, and the aluminum frame and glass enclosure are removed. All of the aluminium and 95% of the glass from the project is recycled.
After that, we move to cell modules. At scorching 500°C, tiny plastic components are vaporised from the cell modules. 80% of cell modules are reusable.
The final product is silicon wafers. These are removed by etching and melted down as slabs. 85% of the silicon is recycled to make new solar panels.
2. Thin-Film Solar Cells
This method is a little more gruesome than the last.
A shredder and a hammermill are used to break down thin-film panels. Each panel is trimmed down to 4-5mm thick sections. Here, unlike in the case of silicon-based panels, a mixture of solid and liquid components is separated with the help of a massive rotating screw.
Acid and peroxide are used to remove the semiconductor (usually Cadmium telluride, CdTe) material from the glass, and the glass is then washed with water. About 95% of the semiconductor material and 90% of the glass is recycled.
Note that recycling thin-film solar panels save more semiconductor material but less glass. Since there are concerns about cadmium’s environmental toxicity, silicon-based solar panels are preferred for recycling.
Advantages of Recycling Solar Panels
Solar panel recycling is beneficial for a variety of reasons. Some of these include:
- Environmental benefits: Reusing existing materials reduces the need for new ones, whereas burying waste is harmful.
- Can Save Some of the Rarest Elements: Gallium and indium are used from the Earth’s limited resources in solar panels. It won’t be long before we’re out of gallium and indium if we don’t reuse them.
- Cost-effective: According to IRENA, around 60 million new solar panels can be purchased with the raw materials recovered from used solar panels by 2030.
- Can generate Employment: The solar panel recycling business has the potential to become an established industry globally. Once the project is up and running, it will generate massive employment all over the world.
What Can I do to Extend the Life of My Solar Panels?
Solar panels, all in all, are strong and long-lasting. They only need to be cleaned and maintained regularly. However, the dust and debris that collects on top of the panels can reduce their efficiency. Thus, a simple cleaning once in a while can help maintain its performance over time.
The best way to clean your solar panels is by rubbing their surface using a dry or damp cloth. You can also wash them with room temperature water. However, avoid spraying them with cold water while they are still hot to prevent them from cracking!
A rainy day is better for cleaning because it’s nature’s cleaning crew! You can even hire a professional solar panel cleaner if your panels are too high for you to reach or if you want to out-source the work.
Solar Panels Efficiency Improvement Techniques
We’re always finding new methods to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of solar panels. Solar panels still aren’t as efficient as we’d like them to be, but research is going to help make them more effective.
Here are a few ways you can make your solar panel more efficient:
1. Select the Right Panel
The materials used to make your solar panels may impact the efficiency of the solar array.
- Monocrystalline panels are the most efficient solar panels are, but they are also very costly.
- Polycrystalline panels fall midway in terms of performance and cost. They are lighter in weight and have low production waste as compared to their monocrystalline counterparts. They are also better for the environment.
- The least efficient but also the least expensive solar cell technology is thin film. It is also the most promising for the future since researchers and developers are working nonstop to better the technology.
Solar panels, on the whole, don’t require a lot of upkeep and don’t need anything else to keep working. They do, however, accumulate dust over time. It necessitates periodic cleaning to keep them operating at peak efficiency.
If the solar panels become dusty or unclean, use warm water and a soft sponge to clean them.
3. Avoid Shadows or Obstructions
Your solar panels will suffer greatly if they are placed in the shadow. Ensure there are no obstructions before having them placed to utilise maximum sunlight.
Each panel blocked by shadow might result in a loss of up to half of the solar effectiveness.
4. Using Solar Concentrators
A solar concentrator can help focus the sun’s emitted light into smaller regions. By using this technique, you can make your solar panels more efficient, resulting in more energy output. Solar concentrators can also help lower utility costs of solar panels.
Global sales of solar energy products have increased significantly. More and more solar panels wind up in the trash stream as the number of solar panels sold and installed worldwide is rising every year.
If you no longer need your installed solar panels, consider recycling them rather than adding to the already overloaded landfills. Recycling them at the end of their life is the most environmentally and socially responsible option. Also, it is the most efficient use of resources and money.
The recycled materials can be used to manufacture new solar panels or sold on global commodities markets, boosting the availability of raw materials in the future.