With the increased adoption of solar panels all around the world as the world shifts towards more renewable and sustainable sources of energy, also comes the demand for more reliable and cost-effective methods for getting rid of or recycling solar equipment.
No matter how well-designed and high-quality a solar panel is, sooner or later it will reach the end of its life cycle and must be retired. In such cases, recycling solar panels allows us to reduce the amount of potentially hazardous materials that end up incinerated, are buried in bodies of water or landfills, and also reuse valuable components for making new panels.
However, unfortunately, there are still fairly limited recycling facilities capable of safely and properly recycling solar panel equipment. Not only will this result in higher costs, but improper disposal of solar panel materials can have significant negative environmental and health impacts.
In this article, we will explore all you need to know about the proper way of getting rid of solar panels, and by the end of this guide you’d have learned about:
- Importance and benefits of properly getting rid of solar panels
- Best practices for solar panel recycling to ensure sustainability and maximize value
- Parts of solar panels that can be recycled
- Steps involved in recycling solar panels
- Finding the right recycling service
- How to properly dispose of solar panels according to local laws and regulations
Without further ado, let us begin this article right away.
How do solar panels work?
Solar panels and related equipment work by collecting direct sunlight and then converting the collected heat and energy into usable electricity.
Different types of solar panels may use different methods to convert solar energy into electricity, and different manufacturers may use different components in constructing their solar panels. However, most solar panels are made up of these main components:
- Photovoltaic cells: the most important part of any solar panels, photovoltaic cells—or solar cells—are made of semi-conductive materials that can absorb sunlight and convert the collected heat energy into DC electrical energy.
- Inverter: the inverter is responsible for converting the DC electricity generated by the photovoltaic cells into AC electricity that is commonly used in households and commercial buildings.
- Battery: not all solar panel systems have batteries, but they can be added to store excess electrical energy produced by the solar panels. The energy stored in the battery can then be used when the sun isn’t shining (during the night, in cloudy weather, etc.)
- Wiring: pretty self-explanatory, wiring and cables are used to connect the solar panels to the inverter, batteries, and other components of the solar panel system.
- Mounting hardware: used to secure the solar panels to the ground, roof, or other places they are installed so they stay in place.
With these components, here are the basic steps of how solar panels work:
- Direct sunlight hits the photovoltaic cells (or solar cells) of the solar panels.
- The photovoltaic cells collect heat energy from the sun and convert heat into DC (direct current) electricity.
- The inverter then converts DC electricity into AC (alternating current) electricity. As we know, most of our day-to-day appliances need AC and not DC currents.
- The AC current is then sent to an electrical panel and is then distributed throughout the building to power your devices and appliances.
The importance of properly getting rid of solar panels
Proper way of getting rid of solar panels while adhering to the applicable environmental sustainability regulations would benefit solar panel owners in three different aspects: environmental, economic, and waste management.
- Environmental impact of recycling
Getting rid of solar panels in landfills or bodies of water can release hazardous materials such as cadmium or lead—common materials in solar panels—into the environment, which can harm the environment, wildlife, and even humans in the area.
By recycling these materials instead, we can safely process them and keep these hazardous wastes out of landfills or water; reducing the negative impact on the environment.
Recycling can also allow the manufacturing process of new solar panels to reuse some if not all of these materials, which will help conserve natural resources—metals, minerals, etc. — to further contribute a positive impact on the environment.
- Economic benefits of solar panel recycling
Recycling solar panels and related equipment can also have economic benefits, mainly because it allows us to recover and repurpose valuable materials (glass, silicon cells, etc.) from the solar panel, reducing the need to mine for these valuable materials.
In the long run, this can allow solar panel manufacturers to save costs on acquiring these materials, grow to be more profitable, and create more job opportunities in the solar panel recycling field.
When recycling facilities can grow to be more effective and efficient in recovering and reusing these valuable materials, they may also offer incentives (i.e., rebates) to solar panel owners.
- Benefits of waste management
Proper way of getting rid of solar panels by recycling them also offers a number of waste management benefits.
As we know, solar panels contain a variety of potentially hazardous materials that should not be disposed of carelessly (i.e. in landfills). Proper recycling of solar panels will allow us to safely extract and process these hazardous materials, reducing the negative impacts on the environment.
By reducing the amount of waste being sent to bodies of water or landfills, we can help to reduce the need for new landfills and extend the life of existing landfills.
What parts of solar panels can be recycled and reused?
As discussed above, solar panels are typically made up of various components in a complex configuration. So, which of these components can be recycled? And which should be disposed of safely?
Below are the solar panel components that can be salvaged for their valuable materials:
- Photovoltaic cells
Photovoltaic cells in solar panels are typically made of different layers of materials such as silicon, aluminum, and glass. These layers can be separated (i.e., via heating) and then reused after the recycling process. Silicon cells can be reused in the manufacturing of new solar panels to help offset costs, while aluminum and glass can also be reused in manufacturing new products (besides new solar panels.)
Many solar panel systems have batteries to store excess electrical energy so the user can use this excess energy when little to no sunlight is available. These batteries may contain materials such as lithium, nickel, or lead, as well as other materials that can be recycled to make new batteries or other products.
In solar panels, inverters are used to convert DC electricity into AC electricity, and are typically made up of valuable metals such as steel, aluminum, and copper. These metals can be collected to be reused in the manufacturing of new solar panels, as well as other electronic products.
Wires and cables in the solar panel system often contain valuable materials, especially aluminum, and copper. These metals can be salvaged to be reused in the manufacturing of new cables and electronic materials.
- Other parts
Charge controllers, monitoring equipment, and mounting hardware of solar panels, as well as other accessories, also often contain valuable metals and salvageable materials. For example, many of them are made up of steel and aluminum, which can be reused for various purposes.
As we can see, recycling solar panels and related equipment won’t only help in waste management and preventing negative environmental impacts, but can also promote a sustainable circular economy. By salvaging valuable materials and reducing the need of raw materials, recycling solar panels would also provide long-term economic benefits for both the solar panel manufacturers and their users.
Challenges in solar panel recycling
Despite the various benefits of recycling solar panels, unfortunately, at the moment, there are several key challenges that are hard to ignore, including:
Let’s address the elephant in the room first: unfortunately, at the moment the process of getting rid and recycling of solar panels is relatively expensive. The cost of recycling can be higher than the value of the salvaged materials, often resulting in the recycling process more costly than manufacturing solar panels from scratch. This can lead to higher fees for users who want to recycle their retired solar panel systems and may make it difficult for recycling facilities/companies to turn a profit.
- Lack of infrastructure
At the moment, lack of infrastructure is one of the biggest challenges in solar panel recycling. There are simply not enough recycling facilities to handle the rapidly increasing volume of discarded solar panels. This often leads to a delay in the recycling process and a backlog of retired and unprocessed panels, which will only continue to be a problem in coming years, if this infrastructure issue is not tackled.
- Complex solar panel composition
Solar panels are often made up of a complex mixture of materials: silicon, plastic, glass, and metal materials (aluminum, steel, copper.) Thus, the recycling process would require different processes for separating and purifying these materials, making it more time-consuming, challenging, and costly.
Not to mention, many of these materials are potentially hazardous, which would demand specialized expertise and equipment/infrastructure to ensure proper safety.
- Lack of standardization and regulation
At the moment, there are no clear federal regulations in the US (and many countries all around the world) regulating the recycling of solar panels. Without clear and consistent regulations, it can make it difficult for users to know how to properly recycle and/or dispose of their used solar panels, and for recycling facilities to know what standards they need to meet in their recycling process.
Yet, despite all these challenges in the solar panel recycling process, the industry is currently actively working to develop solutions in an attempt to create a more cost-effective, reliable, and sustainable process for recycling solar panels.
Choosing the right solar panel recycling facility
To address the challenges we’ve discussed above, it’s crucial for users looking to recycle their retired solar panels and equipment to look for the right recycling facility capable of ensuring the safety and cost-efficiency of the recycling (or disposal) processes.
Here are some tips on how to find the right local recycling centers in your area:
- It’s best to start by contacting your solar panel or solar equipment manufacturer for recommendations on where to recycle their products (or if they have their own recycling program.)
- Leverage search engines (i.e. Google) and online directories to find recycling facilities in your area. For example, if you are a company based in San Francisco, then you can use keywords like “solar recycling facility San Francisco” or “recycling center San Francisco” to start your online research
- Contact your city or county government. They should be happy to provide you with accurate information about local recycling facilities that accept solar panels and solar equipment
How to evaluate different recycling centers
When evaluating different facilities for recycling your solar panels, your main objectives are to make sure the materials are handled safely and responsibly while also maximizing the recouped value you’ll get from the recycling process.
Here are some key factors to look for when evaluating different recycling facilities:
- Certifications and accreditations
Check the recycling center’s website to see whether it has the right accreditations and certifications to handle solar panel recycling. Some important certifications/accreditations to look for include:
- R2v3 & RIOS (Responsible Recycling): this is a prominent standard in the electronics recycling industry. Only recycling facilities capable of responsibly handling the recycling process of electronic waste are given R2v3 & RIOS certifications.
- ISO 4001: ISO standards for environmental management systems, ensure that a recycling center has a systematic approach to reducing its negative environmental footprints.
- e-Stewards: similar to R2v3 & RIOS, the e-Stewards certification is also specifically designed for the electronics recycling field and is only given to facilities capable of responsibly handling the recycling of electronic waste.
- UL 2809: a specific certification to the solar panel industry, setting the standards for the collection, transportation, and recycling of retired solar panels and related equipment.
- WEEE Directive: WEEE stands for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, and the WEEE Directive is a regulation applicable to the EU (European Union) that sets standards for the recycling and disposal of electronic waste, including solar panels.
This is not an exhaustive list, but a solar recycling center that possessed some if not all of these certifications and accreditations has demonstrated its commitment to sustainable recycling, and is worth considering.
- Environmental standards
Assess what environmental standards the recycling center follows so you can ensure your solar equipment will be processed in a safe and sustainable way. If possible, ask the recycling center about their process and safety protocols for handling hazardous materials, including whether they take extra measures to ensure these materials are disposed of safely.
The cost of transporting your old solar panels to the recycling facility can add up quickly, and not to mention, there can be various issues along the way.
With that being said, check whether the recycling center offers transportation services or if you need to handle the transportation yourself. If you need to transport your panels and equipment yourself, ask the recycling company for guidance on how you should pack and transport the solar panels and equipment safely.
Also related, consider the distance of the facility to your location, since it will affect transportation costs.
- Cost and fees
As early as possible, inquire about the cost estimation (including possible hidden fees) that you’ll need to pay for recycling the solar panels. You’d want to deal with a transparent recycling company that will be honest about any additional charges and hidden fees for handling specific types of equipment.
Some recycling companies may also offer rebates or incentives for recycling your solar equipment, which can help you maximize the value of your old equipment.
Solar Recycling is a recycling company based in Santa Ana, CA, specializing in buying solar panels and solar equipment, and is definitely worth considering if you are a US-based solar panel user looking to sell your used or old solar panels and equipment.
How much should solar panel recycling cost?
The actual cost of recycling retired solar panels and related equipment can vary depending on several factors, such as:
- The type and size of the solar panels
- The recycling facility’s technology and method used
- The location where the recycling is taking place
At the moment, the average cost of recycling a solar panel is around $25 per panel, in most cases between $20 to $30 per panel.
Recycling costs can also vary based on the recycling company you are working with. Some companies charge a flat fee per panel, while other companies may charge you based on the type of material being recycled, weight, or other pricing structures.
As we can see, the cost is fairly high, and it is typically caused by the processes involved in recycling. Solar panels are typically made of a complex combination of materials, especially silicon, glass, plastic, and metal materials, each may require specialized recycling and purification infrastructure and equipment.
As mentioned, solar panels also often contain hazardous materials, which will require additional safety measures, equipment, and protocols, further increasing the cost.
While the cost of recycling solar panels at the moment is still relatively high, there are ways that may help you lower or offset the cost, including:
- Some solar panel manufacturers and/or installers may offer discounted recycling services for their own products (some may even do it for free)
- Some states and municipalities offer subsidized and free solar panel recycling programs. Check with your local government whether there are any recycling programs that accept solar panels (and related equipment), and ask what fees may be associated with the process.
- Check with relevant industry associations (i.e. Solar Energy Industries Association.) They may be able to provide valuable information on finding solar panel recycling options.
Steps involved in getting rid and recycling your solar equipment
Once you’ve identified the right recycling company to work with, here we will outline the steps you can follow in recycling your solar equipment to ensure optimal recovery of valuable resources and safe handling of hazardous materials:
Step 1: Call the local municipality to ensure compliance
Before starting any of the recycling processes, it’s best to contact your local municipality first, so you can understand the relevant rules and regulations you should follow throughout the recycling process.
Your local municipality may have specific guidelines or instructions on where to take your solar panels for recycling. Regulations may vary depending on your location, and the type of solar panels you’re going to recycle.
Contacting your local government can help you avoid legal issues in the future and ensure you stay compliant with the regulations.
Step 2: Securing a safe way to transport the solar panels and equipment
Once you find a recycling company to work with and ensure you can stay compliant with the local guidelines and regulations, the next step is to ensure the safe transportation of your panels and equipment.
Some recycling centers may provide pick-up service for your equipment, but you may also need to handle delivering the panels on your own. If that’s the case, consider hiring a professional to handle the transport to ensure safety, especially if you are going to recycle larger or more complex panels/equipment.
Step 3: Make sure all documentation is properly filled
Once the equipment has been transported and processed, by now you should have the hazardous materials of your solar panels properly disposed of, and the valuable resources recovered.
In this stage, some localities or states may require documentation of the disposal of solar panels and related equipment. Make sure all necessary documents are properly filled out and submitted to the relevant authorities to ensure compliance with the regulatory requirements.
Getting rid of and recycling your solar panels is crucial for reducing waste, while also ensuring sustainability as you retire older solar panels.
Proper recycling and getting rid of solar panels, batteries, inverters, and other accessories can ensure maximizing the value of your solar equipment by preserving valuable resources, while at the same time contributing to environmental sustainability.
Above, we have discussed all you need to know about how to safely get rid of and recycle your solar equipment in a cost-effective way. By following these steps, you can contribute towards a more sustainable and cleaner future with renewable energy sources.