How to Properly Recycle Solar Panels and Solar Batteries

Sabrina Lopez
April 10, 2024
4 min read

Residential and commercial use of solar panels and solar batteries is growing in the United States, with an annual average growth rate of 22%

And while many solar owners opt into solar power for its positive environmental impact, what happens when the life of your solar panels or batteries has run its course? Disposing of these products comes with its own set of moral dilemmas around solar waste for conscious consumers.

Below, we’ll explore how to recycle solar panels and our recommended best course of action for solar panel disposal.

 

Are Solar Panels and Solar Batteries Recyclable?

Yes, solar panels and batteries are recyclable, and the average operational lifespan of a solar energy system is about 25 years. 

As for solar batteries, the average lifespan of lithium-ion batteries— one of the more common types of solar batteries — has an expected operational lifespan of 10 to 15 years.

For both solar panels and solar batteries, however, these estimations may vary, depending on several factors, such as the materials used to create them, as well as the model and average temperature of the unit.

 

The Challenges Behind Recycling Solar Panels

While these lifespans may seem long, you need to factor in ongoing maintenance and what to do after the lifecycle of your solar system ends. That’s where solar panel removal and recyclability come into the picture, along with a series of strict regulations and even potentially hazardous risks.

Once a solar panel reaches the end of its lifespan or is discarded, it is categorized as "solid waste." The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates solid waste both federally under RCRA Subtitle D and through state and local government programs. Certain solar panels may be classified as "hazardous" waste under RCRA Subtitle C due to the presence of metals that could pose environmental threats if exposed over time.

Additionally, there is a lack of standardization for recycling solar panels; currently, there are no universal standards for the recycling of solar panels. This means there are no established guidelines for recycling these materials, which makes it difficult for solar panel recycling companies to create an environmentally friendly and cost-effective recycling process.

Lastly, the price of properly recycling solar panels is still expensive, with the average cost netting out to about $20 to $30 per panel. (This is in stark contrast to panels sent to landfills, where disposal costs may be as little as $1 to $2 per panel.)

 

Best Practices for Recycling Solar Panels and Solar Batteries

 

1. Not All Materials Are Recycled in the Same Way


Each solar panel system includes different materials, such as metals, glass, copper, silicon, polymer, and more, all with varying degrees of recyclability.

However, according to the EPA, the general methods for recycling solar panels include the following:

  1. “Removal of the frame and junction box;
  2. Separation of the glass and the silicon wafer through thermal, mechanical, or chemical processes; and/or
  3. Separation and purification of the silicon cells and specialty metals (e.g., silver, tin, lead, copper) through chemical and electrical techniques.”

As for finding a place to properly recycle these materials, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a list of organizations that provide end-of-life management for solar materials.

 

2. Solar Recycling Is an Evolving Enterprise 


Solar panel recycling is still a relatively new and growing process. Many manufacturers and installers are still learning the best methods for maximizing the recycling efforts of solar products. 

 While recycling methods are well-established for materials like glass, metals, and electronics commonly found in solar panels and batteries, challenges arise with less recyclable alternatives. Thin film cadmium-telluride panels, though less common, pose difficulties as they require recycling across various manufacturers, complicating the process.

However, as the world continues to integrate solar energy into everyday life, there are many changes currently underway to improve and streamline the solar recycling process, including funding and projects.

In 2023, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) announced the FY23 Materials, Operation, and Recycling of Photovoltaics (MORE PV). This new funding opportunity announcement will grant $20 million toward the establishment of solar energy systems recycling and reuse practices over the next three years, creating a pathway for easier and more affordable solar recycling practices.

 

Need Assistance Removing Your Solar Equipment?

Recycling solar is a complicated process, and attempting to remove and recycle your solar energy panels may be dangerous (and even illegal) if done incorrectly.

If you’re deciding how best to recycle your solar panels, Sun Valley Solar can assist with assessing your needs and recommending the best course of action for your home. 

Learn more about solar removal from our team of experts!