Nida Sajid is a chemical engineering student at Ryerson University and communications director for the CSChE’s student chapter on that campus.

For decades, solar panels have been the solution we have all been looking for. Harvesting sunlight and converting it into usable power should be a harmless and notably sustainable energy solution for future generations. That perception makes it easy, however, to overlook the complete life cycle of a solar panel system is often overlooked. Solar panels do not last forever and the dangers of poor recycling facilities can be detrimental to human health, the environment and the overall community.

According to one definitive review of this subject, the average life span of a solar panel is around 30 years. What happens after that? How can solar panels be effectively managed and recycled to ensure the sustainable use of this technology?  

In numerous low-income countries (LIC), solar panels are often sought as simple solutions of harnessing power from the sun to generate usable energy. Despite being credited for generating clean energy, installation of solar panels produces a significant environmental footprint, including:

  • Processing of raw materials such as quartz and silicon for solar panel manufacturing, which employs agents that generated toxic and greenhouse gas emissions
  • Fossil fuel energy use associated the production of polycrystalline silicon used in solar panels, which generates greenhouse gas emissions

This impact means the estimated energy payback time for one solar panel is 3.5 years. That is how long it takes to produce as much energy as it took to make the panel in the first place.

The recycling of these panels at the end of their working lives poses another challenge. In developed regions such as the European Union, nations frame their budgets for solar energy to account for the proper recycling of these commodities. In LICs that have embraced this technology, there often is no plan or resources to handle this form of waste. Such planning is essential if this photovoltaic (PV) systems are to become a sustainable resource that would minimize harm to the environment. Repaired PV panels can be resold at a lower price and its components can be used to produce new PV panels. Materials such as glass, aluminum and copper can also be recovered for other purposes.

The seventh sustainable development goal by the United Nations calls for providing affordable clean energy to the world. This mandate places a big emphasis on PV solar panels being a quick solution to get electricity in rural areas and developing countries, However, a lack of solar PV recycling facilities can create problems such as the improper disposal of lead-based batteries and associated threats to health from the leeching of these heavy metal components into local groundwater supplies. Recycling plants can minimize such harm, as well as decreasing carbon emissions from disposal.

As the PV market increases, the volume of decommissioned solar panels will increase. For this reason, effective disposal mechanisms need to be put in place. End of life management systems for PV panels will spawn new industry, support considerable economic value creation, shift global standards to long term sustainable development and create employment opportunities with green jobs within the renewable energy industry.

As we continue to seek greener alternatives for the production of energy, it is imperative to focus on all aspects of these technologies, from start to finish. Only in this way do solar panel recycling plants have the potential to be a reversible and sustainable process.