Can Old Solar Panels Be Recycled?

What You Can Do When Your Solar Panels Reach the End of Useful Life

Solar panels typically come with 20 or 25-year warranties. That means you can count on them to last much longer than that (it’s now reasonable to hope for 40+ years). But at some point, they do run out of “juice,” so to speak.

So if you’re over 50 years old and looking at buying solar panels today, you’re probably not going to have to worry about how to dispose of them.

But for younger buyers, what happens 30 or 40 years after you install your solar panels? Or, as a more likely scenario if you’re a homeowner, what happens if you move into a home with existing panels, and they start to decline in power production after a few years?

It’s a challenging problem for two main reasons, as you’ll see in a bit. But it’s going to get solved eventually, because solar is booming.

What Happens to Old Solar Panels?

Right now, not much. There are two main reasons solar panel recycling is tough to do at the moment.

1. Hardly anyone does it

There aren’t many places equipped to handle them. As with any tech-related product, it’s not simply a matter of throwing them in a bin like a can of soda or a milk jug. Solar panels are highly technical products with electrical wiring, glass, and a variety of metals.

So, your biggest obstacle to recycling your old solar panels is finding a place that will take them.

2. Not cost-effective

As with any complex product, some parts of the panels are worth more to recyclers than others. The main components of solar panels are glass, aluminum, and metals like silicon, silver, and tin, perhaps some copper.

The aluminum has value. The silver has value. And in larger quantities, so might the glass and tin. But that’s the problem – the quantities are too small.

30+ Year Life Cycle

If someone bought solar panels in 1980, they might be just now nearing the end of their useful life. How many people bought solar panels way back then?

number of old solar panels to be recycled will increase next 30 years, as this graph showsHardly anyone.

So, in terms of a life cycle, today’s old solar panels were installed way back when hardly anyone was buying them. The quantities to make a solar recycling industry viable just aren’t there. But in time, they will be.

Thousands of MegaWatts of solar generation get installed each year, and the trend is increasing as you see in the graph. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) predicts 90 million tons of old solar panels will be ready to recycle around the year 2050. 90 million!

So today, 35 years after solar’s first small waves, there’s a limited number of people now looking for what to do with their old solar panels. But in another 35 years, the massive solar boom we’re seeing now will be entering its first replacement cycle.

When that time comes, the metal components of solar panels, and maybe even the glass, will be economically viable for recycle and reuse.

How Do I Dispose of My Old Solar Panels Today?

If you were one of the early adopters of solar, and now have old panels that you want to replace, you might have to take them to a landfill. But talk to a local solar installer for specific ideas, because in certain cities there may be better alternatives.

But there’s a movement already building to make solar panel recycling a major enterprise, and over the next 30 years, we’ll see it develop.

So, if you’re in the market today for new panels, you can be pretty confident that by the time you need to replace them, there will be a thriving solar panel recycling industry that will probably pay you for your panels, because the metals will be in large enough quantities to make the time it takes to obtain them worth the expense.

What’s the science behind solar? Learn how solar works in this 2-part tutorial


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