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Solar Module Recycling - Future Recycling Programs for Solar Panels

By 2025, it's expected we'll see 10 percent of U.S. electricity generated by solar power. Certainly that's welcome news as a means of cutting down on our carbon footprint. However, as with wind energy, the true environmental impact of solar must take into account the recyclability of its materials. Though the vast majority of solar modules (or panels) have yet to reach their 20 to 25 year lifespan, now is the time to put sustainable recycling programs in place so to ensure responsible disposal in the near and distant future.

solar module recycling

Why is Solar Finally Poised to Provide Such a Significant Portion of U.S. Electricity?

According to a report by Duke University, solar is less expensive than nuclear power on a per-killowat hour basis. And by 2013, solar should be comparable in price to fossil fuels. Beyond cost (and the obvious availability of solar), other considerations include policy changes, incentives, technological improvements and economies of scale. Return to Top

What Toxic Materials are Solar Modules Made From?

Recycling solar modules is imperative not only as a means of keeping mass out of the landfills but, more importantly, toxins. Most solar modules contain toxic chemicals on par with e-waste (i.e., computers, televisions, etc.). The most concerning toxins include:

  • Lead, which is present the oldest and most widespread solar technology - crystalline photovoltaic, representing 57 percent of the U.S. market.
  • Cadmium telluride, which can be carcinogenic and represents 21 percent of the U.S. market.
  • Copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS), which also has a cadmium layer. Both the indium and selenide are potentially hazard and represent 6 percent of the U.S. market.
  • Amorphous silicon, which has an indium tin oxide layer, and represents 16 percent of the U.S. market.

In other words, shredding and sending solar modules to the landfills may prove a detriment to human health, as toxins can seep into the ground and, ultimately, make their way into our water and air. Return to Top

What Recycling Programs Currently Exist for Solar Modules?

Since the demand for solar module recycling is so low right now, there aren't many recycling processes in place. However, one U.S. manufacturer is leading the way with recycling plants throughout the U.S. and Europe. First Solar offers to all of its customers the free collection and recycling of its solar modules. Beyond that, Europe has a manufacturer-funded "take-back" program that presumably provides a similar service. Return to Top

How are Solar Modules Recycled?

In First Solar's recycling program, they crush the glass components so as to remove the laminate. The glass is then ready to be reused in other applications. First Solar also recovers and reuses 95 percent of its semiconductor films for new modules. Overall, First Solar says 90 percent of a solar module's materials can be recycled and reused. Return to Top

Why Aren't There More Solar Module Recycling Programs?

The majority of solar modules have yet to reach their 20 to 25 year lifespan, so the demand for solar module recycling simply isn't there yet. And without demand, there is little incentive for profit-seeking manufacturers to invest in in-house recycling programs. However, most manufacturers have expressed interest in utilizing third-party recycling programs. The problem with that is manufacturer concern that the breaking down of materials in the recycling process will reveal manufacturing secrets. Return to Top

What is the Best Way to Ensure Responsible Recycling of Solar Modules?

The best place to start the recycling process is in the initial design. Instead of making solar modules with such toxic substances, the logical next action is to incorporate more eco-friendly materials in the first place, including the proper testing necessary to do so. Beyond that, responsible recycling of solar modules should take into account worker safety and public health. Return to Top