Not many PV panels have yet reached their end of life, but this is likely to accelerate in the 2030s as early systems (particularly those installed during the FiT boom) begin to reach old age.
Some panels, however, do get damaged, malfunction or are replaced for newer modules, becoming complex electronic waste.
What happens to the modules next is vital to ensuring solar remains one of the most sustainable forms of energy. The good news is that work is underway to tackle the complexities of solar panel recycling...
Solar panel lifespan
Most solar panels are expected to last at least 25 years. Output degrades over time, so manufacturers offer a power guarantee for the generation ability at this point (usually about 80% of the initial output after 25 years).
But after this date, it’s likely that the panels will continue generating electricity for years to come - some of the earliest panels commissioned in the 1980s are still working!
Are solar panels recyclable?
Solar panels are mostly recyclable, at least in theory. A solar module is typically composed of the following elements by weight:
- 75% glass,
- 10% polymer,
- 8% aluminium,
- 5% silicon,
- 1% copper,
- <1% silver, tin, lead and others.
There are some hazardous materials in solar panels - lead and tin can be toxic if they leach into the soil or groundwater, which is a significant risk if they are disposed of in landfill.
Well established recycling channels exist for glass and aluminium, which form the bulk of a PV module. Other components may be turned into filling material for construction.
IRENA estimates that by 2050, 78 million tons of materials could be recovered from solar modules, worth an estimated $15 billion.
Solar panel recycling process
Silicon solar panels can be recycled as follows:
The aluminium frames and glass panels are disassembled for reuse or recycling.
The remaining components are heated to 500°C in a thermal processing unit to evaporate the plastic, leaving the silicon cell.
The cell is physically separated into parts that can be reused or refined further.
Acid is used to etch away silicon wafers, which can then be melted down and reused.
Thin film solar panel recycling is a bit more intensive, with the process as follows:
The panels are shredded to remove lamination.
Solid and liquid materials are separated by a rotating screw.
The liquid components are precipitated and dewatered, then processed to separate the semiconductor materials for reuse.
The solid components are vibrated to remove the interlayer materials and rinsed to leave the glass for reuse.
The Veolia PV recycling centre in France claims a 95% recovery rate:
Solar PV recycling regulations
The Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive came into force for all EU countries in 2012. Its aim is to reduce electrical waste and encourage the collection and recycling of such material. The onus falls on electronics producers to finance material recovery and retailers to offer a take-back service. So far, it seems that this law will continue in the UK post-Brexit.
The WEEE Directive also covers photovoltaic panels. A special category was created for PV, however, so that producers wouldn’t have to pay an unfair percentage towards consumer WEEE recycling (as this is calculated by weight, and panels are heavy relative to the small number currently ready to be recycled).
In the UK, PV Cycle is the most well used take-back and recycling network for solar panel waste.
How much does it cost to recycle solar panels?
For a typical 16 panel system to be collected from a Reading property and recycled, the cost is about £750 + VAT.
For domestic systems under 20 panels, these can also be dropped off at a PV Cycle facility for recycling free of charge. Unfortunately, there aren't many drop-off centres at the moment but you can find your closest one here.
For systems larger than 20 panels, you can request a quote for collection and disposal via PV Cycle.
If you need any help or advice for your new solar PV system, feel free to contact us.