Olympus Power has a mission to save 1 million tonnes of carbon – we have designed and fitted hundreds of solar powered systems for companies across the UK, and what happens to solar panels and systems at the end of their life is very important to us.
Can solar panels be recycled?
A recent BBC report estimates that 2.5 billion solar panels are now in place worldwide with most installed in the last 10 years, predicting a potential solar panel waste mountain in 20 to 30 years. Recycling of solar panels concerns us. The thought of them ending up in landfill is something we want to address here.
In simple terms, solar panels are constructed of mainly aluminium, glass, plastic and silicone. All these elements are easily recyclable. Secondly, although manufacturers commonly provide 20 to 25 year warranties that guarantee the amount of electricity generated, the actual useful life of a good quality solar panel is often underestimated, with a panel’s output degrading by as little 0.5% per year. A solar panel’s useful lifespan can exceed 40 years.
Solar panels are a complicated multi-layered sandwich of materials, typically made up of 80% glass and aluminium. The majority of installed panels have an element of silicon, silver, aluminium or copper. The silicon and metals are valuable but more difficult and expensive to recover, but giving a second life to semi-precious metals and silicon not only reduces landfill but also reduces mineral extraction and mining of new ores.
How are solar panels recycled?
Technologies are evolving to recover the silicon more readily without the need for chemicals, high temperature breakdown and toxic residues and emissions. In June 2023 the world’s first factory dedicated to recycling solar panels opened in Grenoble, France that aims to recover 99% of the components. Veolia is using robotic technologies to pull apart a solar panel’s layers, allowing them to boast of a 95% recycling rate.
The US is also ramping up its recycling with two major new facilities opening in the last six months in Texas and Missouri.
Just as we’ve seen advances made in recycling lead batteries, and then lithium batteries, advances are being made in recycling solar panels that we believe make the concern of ‘waste mountains’ unjustified.
As well as progressive technology and the cost of recycling versus the cost in monetary terms of the reclaimed elements, the other driver for recycling rather than landfill, is of course, legislation. Since 2014 Europe has labelled spent panels as e-waste (under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive). Solar importers or manufacturers are required under the Producer Compliance Scheme to take used solar panels back and organise for them to be recycled.
In summary, in the UK and Europe, the solar industry is well set up and focused on recycling – and we foresee a high recycling rate for solar panels and continuing advances in their manufacture and efficiency. Olympus Power works closely with solar panel manufacturers to ensure their methods of production are ethical and as sustainable as possible, choosing to work with the best providers. Our management team also looks at recycling and reuse possibilities for the solar panels we provide, working with manufacturers who are looking to the future of solar panel recycling.
Ready for some more myth-busting?
This is a great article mythbusting some of the common misconceptions about solar panels, debunking arguments against them – some of which have appeared in government debate recently.
Ask the experts at Olympus Power about renewable energy and the life cycle of our systems – see what we can do for your business