Recycling your solar power installation: can it be done? We explain all!
While solar panels may look fragile and delicate, the truth is that they’re highly-engineered pieces of equipment that are designed to withstand even the toughest of conditions.
In fact, many have service lives measured in decades.
When your panels eventually reach the end of the line however, the question of disposal inevitably comes up.
As someone who’s invested in commercial solar installation, the environment likely weighs heavily on your mind. No doubt you’re wondering to yourself whether or not your old solar panels can be recycled.
So, what’s the answer?
Are solar panels recyclable?
Short answer: yes!
Longer answer: yes, though there’s a catch.
Sure, many of the core components of solar panels can be recycled. The problem? Separating those recyclable components from everything else that makes up your typical solar panel.
Solar panels are complex pieces of equipment, with multiple parts made of different types of material:
- Silicon solar cells
- Metal or aluminium framing
- Copper, tin and silver
- Polymer bonding
- Glass sheets
While each of these can be recycled, each has a different recycling processes, and thus can’t be processed together.
Long story short, the hard part of recycling a solar panel isn’t the component parts themselves. In order to properly recycle an old solar panel, they first need to be broken up into their component parts.
And unfortunately, this makes recycling a time-consuming and expensive process!
All is not lost, however!
Of course, just because the process is long and time-consuming doesn’t mean that it’s impossible.
Not to mention, solar is still a relatively young sector – give it enough time, and we’re sure better ways of recycling solar panels will be developed!
Recycling silicon-based solar panels
One of the biggest problems with recycling conventional silicon-based solar panels is breaking down the silicon cells themselves.
Many silicon cells are bonded together using polymers. Getting rid of these is crucial, as traces can “spoil” the silicon cells so to speak.
Once the external glass, metal and wiring are removed and recycled, the remainder are treated at 500C to dissolve the bonding, leaving “raw” silicon behind, which can be used to make new silicon cells.
In many cases, up to 85% of raw silicon can be salvaged!
And thanks to new techniques developed in the EU under the ELSi project, the time and money involved in recycling should start going down soon!
Recycling film-based solar panels
While silicon-based solar panels are the more popular option, by no means are they the only ones.
Film-based solar panels are a new development in solar that make use of recent developments in semiconductor technology to create lightweight, flexible film up to 350 times thinner than standard silicon cells.
Owing to its unique design however, the recycling process is a tad different, to say the least.
The first step? Feeding film-based panels through a shredder (don’t worry, there’s a very good reason for this!)
This breaks the lamination that holds it all together, allowing it to be removed. What’s left is a mix of solids and liquids, which are separated using a device similar to a centrifuge machine.
Both are then purified using different techniques, leaving behind semiconductor material and glass elements for recycling.
Luckily, you probably won’t have to worry about that for a while!
If you had your solar system installed in the last couple of years, you won’t have to worry for a while yet.
Modern panels are rated for deceptively long lifetimes – LG offers a 25-year warranty on all panels (that’s 15 years longer than the industry standard!)
This means that you won’t have to worry about the question of recycling your solar panels for a long time to come.
And hopefully, by the time your solar panel installation sharts showing its age, new techniques and refinements to existing ones will make the recycling process faster and easier.
We mentioned the Eu’s ELSi project above. However, there are also experiments and trials around the world that are making steady progress in developing new recycling techniques, or making existing ones faster, more efficient and more affordable.
Fingers-crossed, we’ll see a breakthrough in the coming years!
Why choose Pacific Solar for your solar power installation?
Of course, all this discussion about recycling solar panels is moot if you can’t find a reputable team to look after your solar installation first!
Unlike other solar installers, Pacific Solar is here for the long-run.
In addition to advising with disposal and recycling when the time comes to replace your solar panels, our team provides continuing support and assistance throughout the life of your system, however many years that might be.
Our team work with reputable brands, and possess over 10 years of experience in solar installation, ongoing maintenance and support.
LG Solar Platinum Partner
Pacific Solar is proud to be an LG Solar Platinum Partner.
Reserved for only 12 solar businesses all across Australia, we’ve partnered with LG to deliver commercial clients around the country unrivaled solar solutions.
We’ll also provide in-depth reporting that details exactly how much power you’re generating, and how much money your commercial solar system has saved you.
Start saving money – and the environment! Talk to us about commercial solar installation at your business – anywhere is Australia.