Can A Solar Panel Be Recycled?
Updated: Oct 13, 2019
A question we get asked often is which parts of a solar panel can be recycled. The Australian solar industry has grown exponentially over the past two decades, with more than 2 million solar panel systems installed on residential rooftops. Depending on the solar panels, a solar power system has a typical life expectancy of 20 to 25 years. While PV solar systems are installed to provide a sustainable and clean source of energy, the question is what happens when panels come to the end of their useful lives?
90% Of A Solar Panel Can Be Recovered
In Australia when solar panels reach the end of their life expectancy, the majority of them used to end up in landfills. Thankfully back in 2014 Clive Fleming and David Galloway recognised the lack of solar panel recycling processes in Australia and have worked together to launch Reclaim PV Recycling. The pair worked with a team at Flinders University in South Australia to develop the best practice for recycling PV modules with the goal of delivering a viable and streamlined system.
So far Reclaim PV Recycling has managed successful recycling processes for mono- and polycrystalline PV panels being able to reclaim 90% of materials, with an aim to reach 100% recyclability.
What Parts Of A Solar Panel Can Be Recycled?
Solar panels are made from several components, including:
Silicon solar cells
Silicon-based panels and thin-film panels need to be recycled in separate schemes. Both have glass as their heaviest component, but 95% of the glass components in silicon-based panels are the most reusable. The silicon particles will then be broken down using acid and are now ready to be used to produce new silicon modules. For thin-film based panels, it’s the semiconductor materials that are the most reusable.
Recycling For New Solar Projects
New projects such as the 60 MW, 200,000-panel Narrabri South Solar Farm in New South Wales have end-of-life provisions in their contracts. As a Canadian Solar project, the recycling for Narrabri South throughout its expected life of 35 years will be handled by Reclaim PV.
Solar Waste Management Australia
The Australian Council of Recycling wants to build a national program to recycle solar panels and solar batteries. Similar programs for computers, televisions and mobile phones have been successful in the past. This year, Victoria has also started to act towards solar waste management by banning solar panel material on landfills. The NSW Environment Protection Authority is researching e-waste, although people can still dump solar panels in landfill.
The Queensland government also plans to introduce solar battery recycling.
Learning From Europe
PV Cycle, a European solar panel recycling association, developed a treatment process that achieves a 96 percent recovery rate for silicon-based solar panels. The remaining 4 percent is utilised in an energy recovery process, using a waste-to-energy technology. The previous recovery rate for silicon-based panels was around 90 percent, so this new solar panel recycling process is good news for the environment. Non-silicon-based solar panels can have a recovery rate of up to 98 percent.
In Europe, the European Union’s waste of electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) directive regulates solar panel disposal guidelines. Solar panel recycling guidelines in Europe could help spur innovation in Australia, which could have global environmental and economic benefits.