Solar Panel Recycling: A Sustainable Solution for End-of-Life Modules

Every week in Ireland, approximately 600 residential solar panel arrays become interconnected with the grid. This integration empowers homeowners across the state to energize their residences through a completely renewable approach. Furthermore, the majority have witnessed significant reductions in their end-of-month energy expenses.

Undoubtedly, this emerging technology has rightfully earned recognition as a transformative force. However, amid the enthusiasm for solar panels' energy-harvesting capabilities, the ecological drawbacks and potential waste generation associated with them have often been overlooked.

Solar Photovoltaic panels, commonly referred to as solar PV panels, capture highly charged protons emitted by the sun. These protons subsequently interact with atoms on the panel's silicon surface, generating a robust direct electrical current (DC). This current is then routed through an inverter, which converts the charge into an alternating current (AC) capable of powering home electronics. Unlike the emissions produced by burning oil or gas for energy, this method provides a zero-emission means of home power generation.

Unquestionably, solar PV technology stands as a beacon of future energy solutions. However, while this standpoint is predominantly accurate, certain environmental challenges associated with solar technology remain largely unaddressed. The resource-intensive nature of solar panel manufacturing is already exerting pressure on global resources. Without the establishment of suitable avenues for solar panel recycling, humanity risks squandering a pivotal opportunity to revolutionize Ireland's and the world's energy landscape.


Understanding Solar Panel Waste


To grasp the significance of effective solar material management, let's begin by dissecting the various components that constitute an average solar panel. The pivotal core of the panel is silicon, a brittle yet resilient crystalline substance.

Silicon, due to its semiconductor properties, adeptly transforms solar heat into electrical energy. Typically, either monocrystalline or polycrystalline silicon is utilized. The former originates from a single silicon crystal, while the latter is formed from an amalgamation of diverse silicon fragments, offering a more cost-effective production approach.

In addition to silicon, solar panels feature an aluminum framework, tempered glass encasing the exterior, and a junction box often crafted from stainless steel. To grasp the materials-intensive essence of a singular solar panel, consider a wind farm equivalent in capacity to a 50-Megawatt gas turbine.

While the solar panel array refrains from emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, other environmental quandaries remain. Generating an equivalent power output using solar arrays would necessitate 150% more steel, glass, and cement compared to a gas turbine. Statista's data projects a global accumulation of around 60 million tons of material waste from solar PV panels between 2016 and 2050.

The proliferation of solar PV panels across Ireland, Europe, and much of the globe is genuinely encouraging. Nonetheless, at Wattcharger, our commitment lies in presenting information in a succinct and balanced manner. In today's discourse, we will delve into how humanity's inability to address solar panel waste could potentially undermine the immense benefits offered by one of the most remarkable energy collection methods in history.


Stages of Solar Recycling


Photovoltaic cells stand as the fundamental building blocks of solar panels. These cells facilitate the essential conversion of heat into electricity. Nevertheless, they are almost always encased in glass and plastic, in addition to silicon.

A solar panel array typically boasts a life expectancy ranging from 25 to 30 years. Despite diligent maintenance and protective measures against damage and environmental factors, extended exposure to ultraviolet radiation, thermal heat, and general wear will eventually render them inoperable. It lies within the responsibility of consumers to ensure that these components do not find themselves consigned to a landfill, where they could languish indefinitely.

While long-term degradation remains inevitable, there exist vital steps one can undertake to enhance the longevity and performance of their solar PV array. To delve further into this, refer to Wattcharger’s comprehensive guide to solar PV maintenance.

Consequently, the materials composing the solar PV panel array will ultimately necessitate proper disposal. However, owing to the nature of these materials, they cannot be casually discarded into recycling bins alongside used newspapers and Coca-Cola cans.

Fortuitously, Ireland's 1996 Waste Management Act outlines a framework for environmentally responsible waste disposal, which extends to solar panels. Moreover, the EU has categorized solar disposals within the ambit of the Waste Electrical and Electrical Equipment Directive, instituting specific disposal regulations for solar panel recycling. The International Renewable Energy Agency approximates that roughly 80% of solar components are recyclable.

As your solar cells reach their final stage of operation, the initial step is to meticulously separate the individual components. This ensures that materials like plastic and glass can be independently processed and repurposed. More valuable elements such as copper and silver can often be returned to the manufacturer through sale.

Subsequently, the silicon can be subjected to a melting process at 500°C, effectively loosening the bonds within the solar cells. This treatment permits the repurposing of approximately 86% of the silicon, thereby alleviating the burden on the production and distribution of newly mined materials.

Referred to as thermal processing, this technique salvages a significant portion of the panel by etching away at the silicon wafers. By removing the thin-film layer through melting, a substantial portion of the panel can be reconditioned for renewed utility.


Recycling Rate and Benefits


Despite the undeniable significance of proper solar disposal, there is a glaring lack of awareness in this domain. According to a study conducted in 2022, the contribution of recycled materials to solar panel manufacturing is projected to remain below 1% until the early 2030s.

Despite the presence of numerous grants and initiatives aimed at advancing solar panel updates in Ireland, the infrastructure and public awareness regarding solar PV recycling significantly lag behind other EU member states.

For instance, in 2018, Germany achieved a staggering recycling rate of nearly 90%, recycling 6,896 out of 7,708 tonnes of PV modules. In a remarkable turnaround, France collected 4,905 tonnes of solar waste in 2019, marking a thirteen-fold increase from four years prior. This substantial enhancement in solar recycling in the Fifth Republic has been attributed to Soren, an NGO that holds a monopoly on solar waste management in France. As of 2022, Soren is overseeing the operation of three solar recycling facilities across the nation.

Even though renewable energy sources, including solar power, accounted for 42% of the country's electricity production in 2020, the recycling of renewable components significantly lags behind its European counterparts. While precise data for solar recycling remains elusive, Ireland's recycling rate was approximately 37%, juxtaposed with a landfill rate of 15%. These figures undeniably indicate substantial room for improvement in Ireland's solar recycling endeavors.

The imperative of diverting waste from landfills and addressing the proper decommissioning of solar panels cannot be overstated. With Europe's combined solar capacity projected to reach 900 gigawatts by the end of the decade, the demand for manufacturing will undoubtedly be intense.


Solar Panel Recycling Program and Initiatives Worldwide


While many environmentally-conscious consumers worldwide are only now recognizing the paramount significance of embracing solar recycling practices, certain jurisdictions have positioned themselves at the forefront of this endeavor.

As demonstrated by France and Germany's proactive steps towards significantly enhancing their management of end-of-life solar materials, there are indeed noteworthy strides being taken. However, some countries are demonstrating even more innovative approaches.

For example, India's Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change has recently implemented regulations that mandate manufacturers and producers to retain all waste generated from PV arrays until at least 2035.

Likewise, China has underscored the necessity of responsible decommissioning of solar panels. The country has established a solar recycling processing facility in the northern city of Baoding, boasting the capacity to process over one thousand tons of solar materials. The Chinese government is anticipated to unveil recycling quotas for its extensive solar PV industry in the near future.

In England and Wales, several Dedicated Collection Facilities (DCF) have been established to address the disposal of used solar panels. For quantities below 20 panels, individuals can deliver them to these facilities free of charge. In the case of quantities exceeding 20 panels, the collection costs are borne by the producer and directly remitted to the waste management entity.


Promoting a Sustainable Future


Estimations place the value of unused solar waste at approximately $2 billion, underscoring the significant economic incentives linked to solar panel recycling.

Despite existing challenges, such as the intricate handling of the highly sensitive Cadmium Telluride—a corrosive semiconductor material—recycling holds as much importance for solar materials as it does for any other.

Yet, a greater hurdle lies in establishing the global infrastructure essential to address this issue comprehensively. While entities like the EU, through the WEEE program, and The International Renewable Energy Agency have made commendable efforts, substantial tasks still lie ahead.

Solar energy stands as an astounding technological advancement, granting homeowners and businesses in Ireland and beyond the power to govern their energy production and consumption while eradicating detrimental emissions entirely.

As the number of individuals relying on solar energy continues to grow, our prospects are promising. Nonetheless, without a sustainable and responsible approach to waste management, the challenges will persist.

Blog Author: Adrian Dorney