Dead Solar Panels Are About To Become A Lot More Valuable

ENGIE Completes The Acquisition Of Xina Solar One
ENGIE Completes The Acquisition Of Xina Solar One

In the coming years, recyclers will hopefully be able to mine billions of dollars worth of materials from discarded solar panels, according to a new analysis published this week.

That should ease bottlenecks in the supply chain for solar panels while also making the panels themselves more sustainable.

Right now, most dead solar panels in the US just get shredded or chucked into a landfill. The economics just don’t shake out in recycling’s favor. The value you can squeeze out of a salvaged panel hasn’t been enough to make up for the cost of transporting and recycling it. That’s on track to change, according to the recent analysis by research firm Rystad Energy.

That’s left the solar supply chain vulnerable to disruptions and rife with abuse. The nonprofit Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has documented human rights abuses during the mining of materials used in solar panels. And polysilicon used in solar panels is made through an energy-intensive process that’s been tied to forced labor. Those revelations have led to sanctions on some solar products made in China.
In the future, more of the materials used to make new solar panels are likely to come from re-hashed panels. Recovered silver, polysilicon, copper, and aluminum can fetch the most cash on the recycling market, according to Rystad. Unfortunately, today, silver and solar-grade silicon usually isn’t separated out with today’s recycling methods.
It’s often shredded along with the rest of the panel and sold as crushed glass. Luckily, recycling could soon get more sophisticated, thanks to new research into how to salvage the most valuable stuff inside photovoltaic panels.
Solar started to take off in the 2000s, and with a lifespan of around 25 years — we’re just now approaching the first big wave of discarded solar panels. If it’s treated properly, that trash could become treasure.