Photovoltaic panels recycling: making solar energy truly sustainable

How to recycle photovoltaic panels that would otherwise end up in landfills

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By Max Bender

recycling of photovoltaic panels

The recycling of photovoltaic panels is a little-considered issue, but it remains one of the main problems of this technology. In fact, the challenge of producing clean energy from the sun without harming the environment necessarily involves this aspect as well. Nowadays, many organizations and renewable energy companies are pursuing studies for the implementation of systems to reuse the materials that make up photovoltaic modules.

But let’s go in order: how are solar panels composed and what is their life cycle? How recyclable are photovoltaic panels really and who is in charge of them? We will first delve into the basics of these issues.

What is a photovoltaic panel

Photovoltaic panels are modules that have the ability to convert solar radiation – certainly the most common and available source of sustainable energy – into electricity, reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

Today tax breaks for energy saving and bonuses offer important support in many countries to those who decide to install a photovoltaic system for self-consumption of energy and even more so if it is able to produce energy to sell. There are often tax benefits for those who decide to switch to solar thermal heating.

But, alas, not everyone thinks about the problem of when you have to dispose of the panel of a system that has become obsolete or a broken panel. These are in fact electrowelded materials with each other that are difficult to recycle, and recent data show a staggering amount of 78 million tons of panels reaching the end of their useful life by 2050.

The flat components of a photovoltaic system, in fact, have a lifespan of about 20 years, after which they stop producing solar energy. So a solution is becoming urgent. Now, let’s find out the procedure for their decommissioning and panel recovery.

recycling of photovoltaic panels

What materials are recovered from the recycling of photovoltaic panels

From the disposal of panels, the following raw materials can be recovered first:

  • steel
  • aluminum
  • mineral oils
  • lead
  • copper
  • glass

But some non-recyclable plastics can also be obtained.

Who is involved in the recycling of photovoltaic panels

For the recovery of these materials, it is usually essential that the product be taken back from collection centers or directly from industry operators, belonging to consortium organized by manufacturers and importers. The take-back must be possible both against a purchase of a new system and without replacing the system with a new one.

How the collection of disused solar modules works

The various modules from a photovoltaic system must be taken to special facilities for dismantling, recovery and treatment of recyclable materials.

Different national and sometimes even international consortia – with dedicated plants that collect old panels – exist.

recycling of photovoltaic panels

There are three types of processes for processing PV waste:

  • mechanical plant, which is based on removing the frame and junction box, shredding and sorting the materials for reuse
  • heat treatment, which recovers raw materials by a thermal process
  • chemical process, which involves the use of chemicals to recover the reusable component

Treatment can also include the three processes together ensuring maximum results in decomposition and recycling.

Who pays for the recycling of solar modules?

The system of disposing of old PV systems is supported financially by the members who join the consortia (usually these are manufacturers of electronic and photovoltaic materials) and is fueled precisely by the payment of a kind of guarantee, which is added by default on the goods offered on the market.

Construction of WEEE recycling facilities, on the other hand, is ususally supported by community, state and municipal funds.

What is the recycling process of photovoltaic panels

Photovoltaic modules are 80-90% recyclable. The most recoverable material is definitely glass.

How solar panel recycling takes place

In general, the recycling process is structured in 3 steps:

  • The PV module is disassembled, removing the frame and junction box
  • The glass is delaminated, a process that allows the glass to be separated and removed without contaminating it with other elements and thus allowing its total recovery
  • The only a metal panel restingis shredded in order to extract minerals such as copper, silicon powder but also plastics for disposal.

These 3 materials are divided into 3 containers because they are recycled differently.

recycling of photovoltaic panels

What is recovered of a solar panel

Considering a 22 kg photovoltaic panel, approximately the following are recoverable

  • 13.8 kg of glass.
  • 2.9 kg of aluminum
  • 2.8 kg of silicon
  • 1.7 kg of plastics
  • 0.2 kg of various metals
  • 0.1 kg of electrical boards

The secondary raw materials, thus obtained from recycling, can be used in various sectors for example in the production of insulation materials used in construction.

Copper and aluminum are reused as raw materials. The only materials that cannot be reused are plastics.

How much does it cost to recycle solar panels?

To recycle solar energy panels, the expense is not low, but the good news for the consumer is that their disposal is always the responsibility of the manufacturer as stipulated by law. Even without purchasing a new system or individual panel.

Producers of electronic materials and even renewable source plants are registered with national consortia and their products from birth to end of life follow a certified process that ends precisely with proper sorting and recycling.

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