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  • Aasavari Joshi

Driving Circularity in Solar Panels



Solar panels usually last 20 to 30 years, which is a considerable lifespan compared to many consumer products. In fact, many of the panels installed decades ago are still functional and being used today. Solar panels have a lengthy lifespan, therefore, recycling them is a relatively new preoccupation. As a result, some people believe that under the current circumstances, all solar panels that reach the end of their useful lives will end up in landfills due to a lack of end-of-life management options. The technology for recycling solar panels is, nonetheless, well underway, despite being in its early stages. Recycling needs to be ramped up swiftly given the solar energy industry's current exponential expansion. Tens of millions of solar panels have been installed on more than three million homes in the United States alone, and the solar business is thriving. And with the Inflation Reduction Act's recent passing, solar adoption is anticipated to increase more quickly over the following ten years, offering a huge opportunity for the energy sector to become more sustainable.


Without the right tools and infrastructure, solar panels' high-value components, such as silicon, silver, and copper, have typically been too challenging to extract. In the past, the aluminium frames and glass from solar panels were removed and sold for a modest profit. The situation is now changing. In collaboration with solar companies like Sunrun, the recycling company SOLARCYCLE is able to recover up to 95% of a solar panel's value. The extracted parts and materials can then be utilized to create new panels or other components by being inserted back into the supply chain.


With the recent enactment of the Inflation Reduction Act and its tax benefits for local manufacturing of solar panels and components, it is now more feasible than ever to have a strong domestic circular supply chain for solar panels. According to recent estimates, recyclable materials from solar panels will be worth more than $2.7 billion by 2030, up from about $170 million in 2022. Recycling solar panels should no longer constitute an afterthought; it should be seen as both a requirement for environmental conservation and a business opportunity. Solar energy has advanced significantly in the last ten years, taking the lead among all other renewable energy sources. Merely scaling it, though, is insufficient today. Making renewable energy accessible as well as truly clean and sustainable, will take more than just offering a revolutionary technology without considering its impact throughout its lifetime.


As of now, solar panel recycling isn't getting enough attention yet. But on the positive side, we can draw lessons from the fact that we've already solved issues of a similar nature in the past. Take the success story of lead acid batteries (LAB) as an illustration. According to a survey by the Battery Council International (BCI), 99% of LABs were recycled in the US between 2014 and 2018. 17 LABs are currently the most recycled commodity in America, but how did we get here? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that on average, we recycled 70% of LABs in 1985. The recycling of 18 LABs wasn't profitable at the time due to the low lead price.


Solar panel recycling remains an expensive operation, but it might be worthwhile in the long term. In a recent analysis, Rystad Energy predicted that by 2030, the market for recycled solar panel components may be worth $2.7 billion. To calculate the market potential in 2050, multiply that number by 30. Rising energy prices, technical breakthroughs, and regulatory pressure will be the main drivers of this expansion. In 2021, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) issued a study counselling decision-makers on how to establish a commercially successful solar panel sector. Their primary recommendation was to reduce the price of recycling. More specifically, by 2032, we could profitably recycle 20% of photovoltaic (PV) panels with an $18 incentive.


Ensuring all solar panel parts get a second life would decrease the amount of waste going to landfills and cut down on the need for new materials. Regulations should increase recycling profitability while decreasing the convenience of landfilling. New recycling technology, though still in its infancy, may help to increase the recovery of the valuable components of PV panels, such as silicon and silver. The possibility of large market prospects after the flaws are ironed out is promising. If we play our cards well, this transition will benefit the environment as well as the economy in the solar energy sector.


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