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Recycling Solar Panels

Written by Dr. Casey Canfield, Adewole Adegbola, Audrey Jansen, Bo Blomenkamp
Published on October 2, 2023
Research Highlights

As the use of solar power grows, there will be more solar panel waste. Recycling solar panels reduces potential environmental contamination and may alleviate supply chain issues. At the current pace, the growing solar industry will soon approach the scale required for cost-effective recycling operations. Recycling processes differ between first-generation silicon-based solar panels and second-generation thin-film technologies. New manufacturing processes aim to increase the lifespan of solar panels to reduce scrap rates but have not focused on improving disassembly or resource recovery. Other states in the Midwest, like Illinois and Minnesota, have formed working groups to inform future legislation to incentivize or require solar panel recycling.

Science Highlights 
  • Based on current solar energy use and technology, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory predicts that the U.S. will have around 1 million metric tons of solar panel waste by 2030.  
  • New materials (e.g., perovskite) and manufacturing efficiencies (e.g., integrating heat sink technologies) can reduce overall solar panel waste generation. 
  • Some manufacturers have already adopted voluntary industry standards to take back solar panel waste. 
Limitations 
  • New technologies are still under development, and most have not been tested at scale. More research is needed to understand the extent to which each technology is expected to reduce solar panel waste generation over time. 
  • Most research on solar panel recycling focuses on first-generation technologies. 
  • The effectiveness of legislation and voluntary industry standards in diverting solar panels from landfills is unclear.  
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