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Solar Panels; Can They Be Recycled?

By Kristy Hoare on in How Solar Power Works

Solar Panels; Can They Be Recycled?

Lotus Energy - Solar Panel Recycling Center

Clean and green is a tagline often associated with solar panels, so when solar panels have expired, can the panels actually be recycled?  The answer is well, yes, solar panels can be recycled.  Feel free to watch the videos and read our straightforward explanations of how solar panels are able to be recycled.  

First and foremost, almost all the materials in a solar panel have avenues already set up for recycling.  A typical crystalline solar panel is made up of 65-75% glass, 10-15% aluminum framing, 10% plastic, and 3-5% silicon.  One of the most easily recyclable materials is glass, followed by aluminum recycling.  

Currently, the majority of parts from a solar panel can be recycled using existing recycling plants. However, to recycle close to 100% of the materials found in solar panels, new facilities specialising in solar panel recycling would need to be built. 

Presently, New Zealand requires no large scale solar panel recycling

A dedicated solar panel recycling facility recycles up to 100% of a panel's materials; New Zealand's recycling plants cannot achieve such a high percentage as it stands today.  A dedicated facility will recycle much more of the solar panel, such as the plastic junction box (at the back of each panel).  Toxic lead solder can even be recycled (Note, rec Pure solar panels no longer use lead).  

Silicon cells can be recycled, but require heating to 480°C in a furnace to separate the layers.  The silicon wafers can then be reused in brand-new solar panels.

These specialised recycling centres aren’t required in New Zealand just yet; solar panels are expected to last over 25 years, and 25 years ago there were very few solar power systems installed in New Zealand. Solar panel manufacturers offer a minimum performance warranty of 25 years for all panels they build and sell, and some now offer up to 30 years.  

In August 2013, there were 1,451 solar power systems installed in New Zealand.  

During 2014 the numbers started increasing,  with 3196 solar power systems installed that year.  If these solar panels only last a minimum of 25 years, it won’t be until the year 2039 that those panels will need to be recycled. Given that 2014 was a year with a big uptick in installations, we can assume it would be advantageous for NZ to have a dedicated solar panel recycling plant at that time, where around 175 solar panels could be recycled each day.

Solar panel recycling plants overseas

Dedicated solar panel recycling plants in Germany and Australia serve a great purpose, with over a decade of Government incentives for solar power, these countries have had a large number of solar panels installed for many years, hence the need for recycling plants now.

Solar panel recycling plants go a step further to disassemble and recycle plastics (PVC), silica, copper and silver from solar panels, which are then crushed into granules and used to make new solar panels.

The first solar panel recycling center opened in June 2018, in France, by a company called Veolia.

The facility makes use of robots to dissemble panels to recuperate 95% of the materials from the solar panels.

As of 2021, the first end-of-life solar panel recycling plant is in operation in Australia, it’s owned and operated by Lotus Energy.  Lotus Energy claims that 100% of solar panel material will be reused and given a second life.  Solar panels and inverters along with rail components and cables are also sorted and recycled at this impressive facility.

The Lotus recycling plant is chemical-free.  The solar panels are first crushed into small pieces, then sorted.  

View Lotus Energy’s solar recycling plant in operation

The solar power industry is huge, and only getting bigger, yet it’s still in a relatively early stage, so the explanations of solar panel recycling won’t be limited to the methods and ways mentioned above.  As more solar panels near the end of their lifespans, so will the advancement in solar panel recycling.  Inevitably, solar panels and recycling plants will become more efficient, cleaner and easier for all.

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