Can solar panels be recycled?

The short answer is yes, it is possible to recycle solar panels. On average, solar panels have a lifespan of about 25 years. That means solar panels originally installed in the 90s are approaching the end of their lifespan. If this is the case, you may be wondering what you can do with solar panels that have expired and how to recycle them.

How are solar panels made?

Solar panels often consist of six different raw materials.

  • Aluminum is used for the frame. This component protects the panel’s solar cells from damage;
  • Silicon is used for the ultra-thin silicone sheets that capture the sun’s energy;
  • Steel can be found in the fastening material;
  • Tempered glass is a strong type of glass, made to refract light optimally;
  • Copper strips are used to connect the individual silicon cells in a solar panel. Often additionally coated with tin foil;
  • Plastic can be found in the robust back section of the solar panel.

When all raw materials are recovered, they can be recycled to create new solar panels. Manufacturers initiate the recycling process by subjecting the silicon to high-temperature melting. Next, they transform it into thin sheets to create the solar cells. Copper, essential for electricity conduction, is integrated into the cells. A final step involves coating the cells to reduce silicon’s reflective properties.

The backside of the solar panel comprises plastic, while a protective layer of glass shields the cells from diverse weather conditions. This glass layer also facilitates optimal heat transmission, ensuring the cells maintain their peak production capacity. Similar to the solar cells, the glass receives an anti-reflection coating as part of the recycling process.

Lifespan of solar panels

How long does a solar panel last?

High quality solar panels will last at least 25 years. Solar panels lose efficiency over time due to exposure to the elements. This can cause the silicon to harden and damage the frame.

The efficiency of your system decreases by less than 1% each year. This means that efficiency remains high by default in the first few years. After 25 years, your solar panels lose a maximum of 15% of their efficiency. In principle, a solar panel can produce electricity for up to 40 years, albeit at a lower efficiency.

What can you do with solar panels after their lifetime?

Have solar panels been on your roof for 25 to 30 years? Then it is time to replace them. You can then do three things with the current solar panels:

✓ Repurpose them for smaller applications, such as powering outdoor lights, small electronics, or educational projects.
✓ Refurbish to recondition them.
✓ Recycle them into new solar panels.

Due to decreased efficiency after 25 years, most owners prefer to replace the solar panels. Since the old panels basically still work, it is a good idea to recycle them and reuse them for smaller projects. In this way, you can extend the life of your solar panels.

Sustainable approach

Recycling of solar panel installations

PV Cycle is a solar panel recycling organization in Europe. Soly pays a fee to PV Cycle to ensure that we recycle worn-out solar panels properly. In 2016, PV Cycle achieved a 96% recyclability rate – a record in recycling silicon from solar panels.

How are solar panels recycled?
The first step is to disassemble the silicon-based monocrystalline solar panels. Once they are disassembled, the glass and aluminum can be separated. Remarkably, 100% of the aluminum and up to 95% of the tempered glass can be reintegrated into the production cycle.

A critical stage involves the heating of the solar cells to evaporate their coating. Following the removal of the coating, the individual silicon cells are carefully extracted. Around 80% of these cells find new life in diverse applications, contributing to sustainable practices. Regrettably, approximately 20% of these cells are designated as raw materials.

Solar panels: almost completely circular
In short: solar panels are almost completely recyclable. Every day we move one step closer to a fully circular product. This means that solar panels at the end of their lifespan could be completely absorbed into new solar panels or other industrial applications.


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