Can solar panels be recycled?

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Solar panels have seen tremendous growth in recent years. Commercially, businesses and enterprises the world over are turning to solar to augment their existing power needs or move to a self-sustaining source of power. Privately, homeowners are investing in solar as a way to lower their personal carbon footprint and gain independence from unpredictable energy cost and availability.

Whether in the commercial or private space, there is no doubt that solar has done wonders for greening our consumption of electricity. However, this doesn’t mean that photovoltaic cells (the energy-capturing components that make up a solar panel) are 100% green. The harvesting of the materials and the making of PV cells does use resources and energy. Also, PV cells don’t last forever – solar panels can function at peak efficiency for about 30 years before they start to degrade, with many choosing to replace their solar panels when they begin to fail. With such an uptick in solar popularity, some sources estimate 60 million tonnes of PV cell waste will have been generated globally by 2050.

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Technically, it is possible to recycle PV cells. After all, they are made from recyclable materials – mostly glass, with some plastic, aluminum, silicon and metals. However, the solar panel recycling process is complex and the demand for solar recycling facilities remains low in many countries, especially those that have only recently started to grow their solar offerings.

While the lack of solar recycling programs is a current shortcoming in greening the life cycle of solar, developing PV cell recycling systems will become unavoidable for two reasons. First, ideologically, solar is supposed to be green. Political and public pressure will undoubtedly drive the greening of the PV cell life cycle. Second, logically, harvesting the materials from solar panels is lucrative. Projections estimate that solar panel recycling could reap $15bn in recycled materials.

The European Union is leading the charge in solar recycling technology. The amount of material they are currently recycling is small, as the solar market didn’t take off in Europe until the 2000s. They’ll only start to process high volumes of solar starting in 2030 as the first generation of solar begins to degrade. By that time, innovations will make it easier and less costly to recycle PV cells.

Currently, New Zealand does not have the facilities to recycle solar panels. However, given the popularity of solar and the promise of innovation, we expect that the solar panels we install today will find their way to a recycling facility be the time they start to degrade.

Interested in solar for your home or business? Contact us today.