Disposal of photovoltaic panels – cost and recycling

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We invest in a photovoltaic system, 20-30 years pass… and what to do next with our panels? Both prosumers and those planning to invest in renewable energy sources are wondering. After this period, panels whose efficiency decreases will be replaced with new ones, but what should we do with the “used” units? How much can it cost to dispose of photovoltaic panels? Or maybe… their life after 20-30 years will not end at all! Current knowledge allows us to conclude that with age the work of panels does not end overnight, and after 25-30 years only their efficiency decreases. Manufacturers guarantee that the loss of efficiency after this time will not exceed several percent, while at some point there will be a moment when the efficiency of the system will no longer be satisfactory to us. Both in Poland and around the world photovoltaic installations are constantly increasing – will their disposal be a real problem in the future?

Disposal of photovoltaic panels vs. recycling – what materials are we able to recover?

Most components of a photovoltaic panel can be recycled. On average, 75% of the weight of the entire module is glass, and glass recycling is a well-developed industry. Other materials that can be easily recycled are aluminum frame, copper wire and connection components.

We can also recycle the metals that make up the panel. The most valuable raw materials are silver and copper, which are found in small quantities. Difficulties can be – if present – toxic metals such as lead or cadmium and trace elements like tin, tellurium, antimony, gallium and indium.

As a result of technological limitations, we are unable to recover very high-purity silicon from PV modules. Metallurgical-grade silicon, with a purity of about 99%, costs about $4 per kilogram. Photovoltaic-grade silicon, on the other hand, has a minimum purity of 99.9999%, known as “six nines” (or 6N purity), and costs at least eight times as much. Currently, silicon recovered from the panel has a purity of 98%, which is far from the 6N standard [1].

When discussing the disposal/recycling of photovoltaic panels, one should not forget about the other components of the system such as inverters, structural components and energy storage. Inverters do not lose their efficiency over the years like panels, but if they become damaged they can be recycled along with other electronic waste. Structural components will be repurchased from us by a scrap metal collection point, while energy storage systems will be adequately purchased by a battery collection point.

panele fotowoltaiczne w pojemniku na odpady

Figure 1: Photovoltaic panels in a waste container [2].

The course of the process of recycling photovoltaic modules

Depending on the type of module and the materials from which it is made, we can distinguish a number of recycling methods. Nevertheless, most often the process proceeds in 3 steps:

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

Solar panel recycling is a new and rapidly growing industry. Scientists and engineers around the world are conducting research to optimize and automate the process – recovering as much valuable material as possible from the panel, while maximizing the profitability of the process[3].

Cost of disposing of photovoltaic panels

The cost of disposing of solar panels lies with the owner of the photovoltaic installation. How much is it? According to one source, the estimated average cost of disposing of photovoltaic panels is PLN 1.5/kg. The cost of transportation and dismantling should be taken into account. If an outside company is used, transportation will cost about PLN 2.5/km [4].

Due to the “young age” of PV installations in our country, the disposal of photovoltaic panels will probably be a real problem for Poles only after 2040. By then, both recycling methods and the rules and regulations imposed by both the state and the European Union may change.

Currently, recycling of photovoltaic panels is a niche, and there are not many customers for such services. In the future, there will be many new companies specializing in this industry. In view of the “uncertain tomorrow,” it seems reasonable to wait until the market itself responds to the emerging demand.

Moduł PV Bauer Solar 385 W

Fig. 2. Bauer Solar photovoltaic panels with a manufacturer’s warranty of 30 years!

panel fotowoltaiczny sunlink

Fig. 3. Sunlink photovoltaic panels with a product warranty of 25 years and a power warranty of 30 years!

Reusing solar panels

There may come a day when we decide to replace our solar panels. Not because they’re broken, but because we’ll notice a significant drop in performance or our electricity needs will change. Such panels should not go to the landfill or disposal. They can be resold, reused or refurbished. We can’t connect the refurbished modules to the electric grid, but they can be useful for charging energy storage. Nevertheless, there are many other beneficial ways to reuse solar panels like charging stations for electric cars or bicycles.

Benefits of recycling/recycling photovoltaic modules

We already know that solar panels can be recycled and how this process works. The question arises – what other benefits will this bring to the economy? The first step to managing the disposal/recycling of large quantities of photovoltaic modules will be to create the appropriate infrastructure. New infrastructure brings with it new opportunities.

Photovoltaic recycling will not only create more “green” jobs, but is also estimated to bring about tens of billions in recoverable value by 2050 [5]. This influx will make it possible to produce 2 billion new panels without investing in raw materials, which translates into about 630 GW of green energy!

In the interactive map below, you can see which countries produce the most “waste” from solar panels:

Thanks to a number of subsidies, as well as changing electricity prices, the use of renewable energy is becoming increasingly profitable, with the result that more and more households and companies are choosing to invest in renewables, and in particular in photovoltaic installations. This will translate into growing demand in the solar panel recycling sector in the future.


[1] https://cen.acs.org/environment/recycling/Solar-panels-face-recycling-challenge-photovoltaic-waste/100/i18

[2] https://www.brewa.pl/media/strefa%20wiedzy/utylizacja%20paneli/slide-recycling-1024×379.jpg

[3] https://www.epa.gov/hw/solar-panel-recycling

[4] https://kobo-energy.pl/ile-kosztuje-utylizacja-paneli-fotowoltaicznych/

[5] https://www.greenmatch.co.uk/blog/2017/10/the-opportunities-of-solar-panel-recycling


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