Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Open Preferences
By clicking “Allow”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.

Solar Panel Recycling: Why and How to Recycle Solar Panels

Nicholas Cain, PhD, Director of Government Affairs, SOLARCYCLE
A graphic of new solar panels next to broken solar panels.

The rapid growth in photovoltaic (PV) solar has created both a challenge and an opportunity. Solar systems create zero emissions during operation and are replacing fossil-fueled sources of power—and replacing fossil generators with clean sources of power is critical to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and improving local air quality.  

Over recent years, solar has also become the lowest cost source of power generation and the fastest growing new source of electricity in the United States and in many other places around the world.

How Many Solar Panels Will Need to be Recycled?

SOLARCYCLE projects that by 2050, the world will need from 34 to 140 billion panels to generate enough clean energy to electrify key sectors and reduce GHGs sufficiently to tackle the climate crisis.  

In the United States alone, the Energy Information Agency (EIA) forecasts that solar and wind will grow by 75% over the next few years and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) projects that solar installations will quadruple over the next decade to account for 673 gigawatts (GW) of generation capacity.

The rapid growth in solar installations means that, over time, there will be an increasing need for managing panels when they reach their end-of-life (EOL). Looking globally, there are over 1.18 terawatts of installed PV in use today. If we assume that each panel is, on average, 350 watts, that equates to over 3.3 billion panels, with millions reaching EOL each year.

How Long Do Solar Panels Last?

Solar panels are engineering marvels that have long been very durable. A typical module will last for 25 to 30 years. Some manufacturers are now offering 40-year warranties, but the stresses created by temperature swings, sunlight, and weather can break down panels over time. And even the hardiest panels tend to generate a bit less power every year. Extreme weather is another threat that can damage solar systems and lead to a need to dispose of effected panels properly.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projects that by 2030, about 4% of installed panels will need to be retired annually. Although retired PV systems present little risk to human health or the environment, throwing decommissioned modules into a landfill is a waste of precious resources — and we’re going to need these resources to create the next generation of solar panels and other clean energy technologies.  

Manufacturers of PV are continuously improving the efficiency and power output of modules, which means that some owners of utility-scale solar assets may want to “repower” or upgrade the PV modules in their solar arrays to generate more power — and may have older PV modules that are ready to retire before they’ve reached their end-of-life.

The Promise of a Circular Economy for Solar

Advanced recycling strategies can take old panels and turn them into new materials for new panels. A study by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) found that by 2035, recycled materials from retired panels could provide over 50% of the silver we need for new PV, as well as over 30% of the aluminum, silicon and glass. SOLARCYCLE’s in-house research has found that as we improve the material recovery process, it’s likely we can provide an even greater share of materials for PV from recycled materials.  

The promise of the circular economy is to use materials again and again. Since recycling materials is almost always far more efficient than mining and refining new materials, using recycled PV to create new energy systems will protect our environment, while also creating reliable, domestic sources of key materials for the energy economy.

How Do You Recycle Solar Panels?

To recycle the most common type of solar panel, which use crystalline silicon to generate electricity, SOLARCYCLE’s team removes the junction box and frames, slices the panel open, grinds up the bits that remain, and then separates the valuable metals from the remaining materials. The challenge is carrying out these steps in an economically efficient and environmentally friendly way that results in high-purity materials that can be used to make new products and solar panels.  

The purity of the outputs is critical to consider because many recycling processes lead to low-quality materials, which can be tainted with lead or other toxic materials. These materials may be sold by certain recyclers as an aggregate, but if the outputs contain hazardous materials, they are not suitable even for being “downcycled” into roadbeds. In contrast, SOLARCYCLE’s process produces clean materials that can be upcycled into new products.

SOLARCYCLE’s Advanced Recycling Processes

SOLARCYCLE is unique in that we’ve developed an advanced set of processes to recycle retired solar panels. We use different processes depending on the type of solar panel and on the condition of the panels — but, in general, our process follows a similar set of steps.  

As solar panels arrive at SOLARCYCLE’s facilities, panels are inspected for reuse. We assess the power and durability of the incoming panels and evaluate whether they can be used again. Instead of sending modules overseas, where they are unlikely to be properly recycled, panels that can be reused are sold to U.S. buyers or installed directly at one of our “second life” solar farms.

If a panel needs to be recycled, SOLARCYCLE first removes the aluminum frame and the junction box to begin the solar recycling process. Crystalline silicon modules then go through an automated, proprietary recycling tool to cleanly remove the glass from the solar laminate. The remaining laminate, which contains both the solar cells, the encapsulant layer, and, typically, the back sheet is then shredded. The shredded materials go through a multi-step, proprietary process to separate out the plastics and recover valuable metals, such as silver, silicon, and copper.  

Our advanced, high-recovery proprietary recycling process extracts up to 95% of the value of a retired panel so we can return these materials back into supply chains and help grow the domestic solar manufacturing industry.

Graphic of solarcycle's recycling process, where solar panels are tested, broken down, crushed, and metals separated.

Recycle with SOLARCYCLE for a Sustainable Future

Relying on a recycler like SOLARCYCLE means that your old solar modules can be turned into new materials using an advanced process that reduces compliance and environmental risks and maximizes the value of the recovered materials. Creating a circular solar economy points the way to a more sustainable future where the U.S. economy can grow while protecting our environment and human health.

Want to keep the conversation going? Sign up for our newsletter.