A simple PV panel life cycle analysis shows that over 96% of PV materials can be recycled.

“What happens to a solar panel at the end of its life?” is one of the most common questions we are asked. Similar questions include: Do solar panels go in the landfill or are they recycled? How long do solar panels last? Who is responsible for decommissioning solar plants? How do we know that solar is clean technology? Should you lease your commercial property for solar? What are the advantages of solar farms?

There’s no easy answer because solar recycling technology is constantly evolving, but a Life Cycle Analysis helps us optimize recycling through choosing optimal processes and products.

Using the current analysis, we know that over 96% of solar PV materials can be currently reused and made directly back into new solar panels in the right circumstances. All it takes is a strict recycling program and adequate government regulation to ensure producers manufacture the panels in a way that makes them easy to be broken down.

Why is Planning for Solar Panel Recyclability Important?

With a life cycle of solar panels typically projected at 25 to 30 years, recycling solar panels is a task that many companies and governments easily postpone. And when we look at the actual lifespan of panels – closer to 35 to 40 years, solar panel recycling seems even more distant in the future.

How long does a solar panel last?

The 25-year lifespan of a solar panel may be a significant underestimation of the actual performance in the field. In reality, the power capacity decreases only 6 to 8% after 25 years, as compared to the 20% decrease used to estimate the 25 to 30-year lifespan. A more accurate lifespan may be 35-40 years.

Postponing an industry-standard recycling plan in the United States ignores an issue that we are currently facing. As solar panels age, issues can arise causing some panels to need replacement before the end of their expected lifespan, especially if they are not properly maintained or damaged, usually due to extreme weather events.

As with other e-waste, solar panels should not be disposed of in regular landfills. Instead, they need to follow a full recycling process and require standardized recycling facilities that are properly equipped. Additionally, initiatives that hold manufacturers responsible for end-of-life panels will ensure that 96% of solar panels are recycled.

Solar Panel Life Cycle Analysis – Explained.

The typical and arguably most comprehensive way to measure the environmental impact of solar panels on the earth is the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) methodology. Defined as the whole lifespan of a product, the life cycle includes everything from raw material acquisition and manufacturing to the disposal or recycling of the solar panel. Using that information, decision-makers can select the manufacturing, construction, and recycling processes that result in the least impact on the environment.

What goes into a Life Cycle Analysis?

Life Cycle Analysis allows a decision maker to assess the whole product system and environmental impact. because it includes the entire lifespan of a solar panel. The analysis includes the inputs (including raw materials and energy) and outputs (including atmospheric emissions, waterborne wastes, solid wastes, coproducts, other releases).

What needs to be recycled in a solar panel?

Most PV panels fall into two basic types and require two distinct recycling life cycles: silicon-based PV and thin film-based PV panels. Silicon-based PV panels are generally 76% glass, 10% plastic, 8% aluminum, 5% silicon, and 1% metals. Thin film-based PV panels consist of 89% glass, 6% aluminum, 4% plastic, and 1% metals.

The silicon-based PV panels (the most common of the two panels) are first disassembled, and the glass and aluminum are separated. 95% of the glass and 100% of the metal are reused. The remaining materials are heated to 500 degrees Celsius which causes the plastic to evaporate. Of the remaining cell modules, 85% of the silicon.

Thin film-based PV panels are shredded into roughly 5mm pieces and separated to remove the film using peroxide and acid. Through the processes of removing interlayer materials and rinsing glass, nearly 90% of the glass is reused. 95% of the semiconductor material is reused via a precipitation and dewatering process. The remaining metals are then separated and processed.

Standardizing Full Solar Life Cycle Recycling Is Key to Success

In Europe, solar panel recycling has reached a far more developed state than in North America. For example, over 70% of PV manufacturers take part in a global PV CYCLE Network that helps producers meet the legal obligations of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive legislation. As members of this initiative, producers are actively engaged in the sustainability of their product during manufacturing and throughout its lifespan.

If North America followed the EU model, the promise of 96% material recyclability would be fulfilled, which would cover almost two billion new panels by 2050. Creating new recycling plants also increases employment opportunities for local communities. Finally, recycling panels means we can manufacture new panels and contribute to the clean energy transition without filling up landfills.

OYA Solar welcomes any comments, feedback, or concerns regarding our work with solar energy. Email us at info@oyasolar.com.

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