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What Percentage of Solar Panels Are Recycled?

There are several options for the disposal of solar panels today. If they are still operational, solar panels can be sold to secondary markets, despite degrading performance of the PV cells. Panels that have degraded to the point where reuse is not feasible, or those that are fully non-functional, can (and should) be recycled.

As We Recycle Solar’s Vice President, AJ Orben, notes on solar panels, unfortunately “9 out of 10 people would much rather improperly and illegally dispose of them than properly recycle, given the cost.”

nevada solar installationFor large-scale solar installations, such as those operated by utilities and enterprise businesses, responsible removal and recycling of solar panels has many benefits. Solar panel recycling is an environmentally progressive initiative that reduces unnecessary waste and protects the business from gray market threats and the potential of eroding their reputation.

Unfortunately, for smaller-scale projects (such as DIY and individual residential installations), some states have difficulty keeping panels out of landfills.

Recycling should be more of a focus, both at the local level and for individuals disposing of the material. A unique feature of most solar panels is that 90% of their thin modules made from cadmium telluride can be recycled.
Specialized recycling and refining processes must be used to extract many of a solar panel’s trace materials. There has been a considerable amount of effort from authorities as well as international collaborations to improve the management of discarded solar panels.

With the continuous production of panels across many sectors of the world, it has become increasingly important for manufacturers to find ways to channel old or damaged solar products to industry specialists who are equipped to recycle large quantities.

A Look at the Evolution of Solar Panels

The Invention of Solar Cells and Early Developments

Scientists have known about the power of the sun for almost 3 centuries now. The first real progress in the harnessing of solar power came in 1839 when the photovoltaic cell was invented by Edmond Becquerel, a French scientist. While researching photochemical reactions, the scientist discovered how substances assimilate light as an energy form. The 1800s saw several other developments in the conversion of solar power to electrical power like the discovery of a concept called photoconductivity (electric conduction based on light intensity) and the development of the first solar cell.

satellite with improved solar panels
Representation of Satellite Powered by Solar Panels

Silicon was first used to produce solar cells in 1953 by Bell Laboratories and they announced it a year later. Unfortunately, the majority of solar power applications in the 1950s were not easily commercialized. One implementation that paved the way for silicon solar technology was the U.S Navy’s dual power system, chemical and solar, for their satellite project that same decade. It came after relentless encouragement from a scientist and satellite technology expert, Dr. Hans Zigler. The silicon solar cells outlasted the chemical batteries by years. Due to the high expense of solar panels in the next couple of decades, the technology did not sell well to mainstream consumers.

Solar technology became more affordable due to the effort of Dr. Elliot Berman, who found cost-effective techniques like using lower qualities of silicon for fabricating panels. With the introduction of the Solar Power Corporation and the overall reduction in the price of production, solar energy systems became more normalized in the 1970s. The President of the United States in 1977, Jimmy Carter, even installed solar panels in the White House.

Use in Early Space Programs

Although solar energy did not launch as the cheapest power source for most applications, it was considered cost-effective for space programs. The first implementation of solar power in a space program was as a backup power option for the Vanguard 1 satellite in 1959. A year after that space expedition, a solar cell that was 10% more efficient was invented by Hoffman Electronics. In 1967, Soyuz 1 was launched as the first manned spacecraft that used solar cells.

Six years after this impressive development, a U.S space station known as Skylab with installed solar cells orbited our planet for another six years. It would have lasted longer if the solar cells had not deteriorated during the launch.

Evolution of Solar Panel Efficiency

While it’s been over five decades since silicon-based solar panels were first created by Bell Laboratories, their efficiency has witnessed rapid improvements over the years. Using research, several manufacturers have built panels that show up to a 26% increase in efficiency from its introduction to the world in 1954.

Compared to the lower-tier economy panels that have dominated the industry for years now, high-grade panels can generate up to 25% more electricity. There are several ongoing research projects into the possible increase of solar panels’ efficiency. A laboratory experiment that involved advanced solar cells showed a promising power efficiency of 46%. Although this kind of panels is highly efficient, the constituent materials make them expensive to fabricate commercially. As far as the cost of implementation goes, solar panels have become more affordable by 65% within the last decade alone. In turn, this has driven many homeowners to look to solar power systems as an alternative or backup for their electrical grid supply.

How Much Silver Is Used in Solar Panels?

Solar panels and their accompanying systems are growing more popular among people looking for an alternative electricity supply or a backup for the grid. Unknown to many, silver plays a key role in the fabrication of these panels, and its supply is affected by the continuous rise in demand for solar power.

Solar Panel Demand Causing Increase in Silver Prices

If you’re wondering why silver is so important in making solar panels, it’s because silver is a metal with incredibly low electrical resistance. Other closely related metals cannot sufficiently match its conductivity for these panels. Silver is so crucial that it can equate up to 6 percent of the total cost of building each unit of the panel.

The average panel of approximately 2 square meters can use up to 20 grams of silver. There’s a silver paste in the solar photovoltaic (PV) cells that collects the electrons generated when the sunlight hits the panel. Because of silver’s high conductivity, it maximally converts sunlight into electricity.

A recent market trend report conducted by London-based consultancy CRU explored the relationship between the demand for solar power and the market trend of silver. According to this study, the solar power industry will likely continue to face expansion as a result of the combination of favorable government policies and global efforts to diminish our reliance on fossil fuel. Even industrial sites, especially those in remote locations, recognize solar as a competitive alternative to power supply from the grid.

New research anticipates that the cost of silver’s use in building each solar panel unit will increase to over 10 percent by the end of 2020. Also noteworthy, the growing cost of its contribution to the panels could greatly outweigh its expense percentage per unit with any other industrial use of silver in the future.

As of 2018, the solar panel manufacturing industry used about 8% of the world’s annual physical silver supply. In the near future, the entire world, and especially in fast-growing countries like China, is expected to experience an increased demand for solar power systems, which may cause a temporary rise in the price of silver. This, of course, would negatively affect the cost of producing solar panels.

Silver To Be Less Needed in Future Panels

The CRU study predicts that the PV sector will consume about 81 million ounces of silver per year over the next decade. Much more silver was used in 2019 in making PV cells (100 million ounces). This anticipated drop implies that the market demand may have peaked in the previous year.

Also noteworthy, PV cells made with materials other than silver, such as copper and aluminum, usually turn out to be less reliable. This presents a major challenge for the commercial progress of these non-silver PVs, but it is one that leading manufacturers are making progress towards resolving.

Recovering the Value of Used Silver in PV Equipment

Being as silver is a finite natural resource, and although solar panels do have long lifespans (some models can be effective for up to 30 years), the demand for silver can be profitable for owners of broken or decommissioned solar equipment.

Through unique direct-to-refinery approaches, silver from damaged or otherwise unusable PV cells can be extracted and the value recovered. The value of this silver can off-set disposal or removal costs related to a solar installation. Even if the effects that the solar industry have on silver pricing lessens, panels still provide multiple trace elements that can provide value.

We Recycle Solar’s Partner to Join Plant It 2020

Plant It 2020 is a nonprofit foundation that performs worldwide tree-planting, donates fuel-efficient cooking stoves to needy families, and provides forestry, soil, and biochar education.plant it 2020

Through their tree planting events, the cooking stove program, and numerous education programs, Plant It 2020 has been a friend to the environment since 1992 when the foundation was started by John Denver. Many great organizations have joined the call to further the cause, and We Recycle Solar is proud to name one of our partners, EcoMark Solar, as one of them this year.

EcoMark Solar is committed to sustainability, not only in working with us by sending their damaged panels and modules for responsible disposal, but by joining the efforts of Plant It 2020 as well. As their CEO Jake DiRe puts it, “Living in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, we understand our commitment goes further than creating the best renewable energy solutions for our neighbors.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves!

It is up to us as leaders in the solar industry to ensure that environmental stewardship continues to be a key value along with customer satisfaction.

Although solar panels provide amazing environmental benefits like reducing fossil fuel use, as a whole the solar industry still has a lot of work to do to move towards goals of a reduced carbon footprint. Just as states like New York aim to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2040, the recycling of PV equipment and the potential benefits from these processes are only now becoming a major part of the industry’s innovation. As processes become more refined, more and more solar panels can be reused and less waste produced, driving solar energy into new areas by lowering the cost of equipment.

Hat’s off to the EcoMark Solar team for this year’s participation in Plant It 2020.

Can You Recycle Silicon?

Silicon: What Are We Recycling

When describing the recycling process for silicon as an elemental component of photovoltaic cells, let’s first understand what silicon is (and isn’t).

Silicon is a metalloid, with the properties of both metals and non-metals. Its greatest quality is probably its ability to conduct electricity, especially at high temperatures. Silicon’s potential as a semiconductor makes the element a familiar component in computer chips and solar panels.

What silicon isn’t though, is silicone.

Silicon
Silicon
silicone rings
Silicone

Silicone is a polymer made of elements, usually silicon, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Instead of being a semiconductor, silicone is an electric insulator. As an insulator, silicone can also be found in computers, but to protect parts from electric currents instead of passing them. Generally liquid or a flexible plastic-like solid, silicone is used in medical implants, contact lenses, bandages, personal care items and much more.

While silicone can be recycled, it is not often included in the list of items that municipalities will pick up. Neither is silicon as it is used in solar panels, but environmentally compliant solar recyclers can handle the element at utility-scale levels.

Silicon Recycling Processes for Solar Panels

As a layer of semiconductors within the middle of a solar cell, silicon aids in the absorption of solar energy. This absorbed energy is sent through a circuit and is eventually captured as electrical current.

Silicon can be found in various types of photovoltaic cells, including monocrystalline, polycrystalline, amorphous silicon, and thin-film cells, making it a component in most of today’s solar panels.

Through a comprehensive process of demanufacturing, parts harvesting, recovery, and recycling, silicon can be effectively recycled from solar cells.

If You Can Recycle Silicon, Then What Does It Become?

Silicon is not often found free in nature – it is usually bound with other elements and mined both as sand or vein deposits. This means that to get the silicon used in solar panels and computer chips, the found minerals need to be processed for the extraction of silicon.

Since silicon is not found by itself, recycling solar panels is a great way to retain the mined element for new or refurbished photovoltaic cells. Recycled silicon has also been tested in lithium-ion batteries and could help the batteries store more energy, giving another use for this rarely-alone element.