Sustainable Lifestyle

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Renewable energy is vital for a sustainable future and solar is one of the most well-known sources of it. However, solar, like everything else, uses physical materials that may cause people to question just how sustainable it really is. Solar panels require precious materials and energy to manufacture them which can result in carbon and environmentally intensive processes. 


Another popular sustainable habit? Recycling. How does recycling help? Recycling used materials allows them to be turned into new items, drastically reducing the material, time, and energy it takes to extract virgin materials. The good news for solar is that old or broken equipment can be used for a new life with new solar panels and equipment. This is an important aspect of reducing the environmental impact of solar panels as we continue to rely on them as a source of renewable energy for years to come. 


Benefits of Solar Panels

Photovoltaic (PV) cells, also known as solar panels, have become a prominent and vital part of the shift towards renewable energy.


How do solar panels work?

PV cells are made of semiconductor materials that transfer photons (light energy) into electrons (negatively charged particles). The electrons then flow through the material in the form of an electrical current. Using conductive metal contacts, this current is extracted and can be used to power things. 


What makes solar renewable?

Energy from the sun is an inexhaustible energy source (at least for a few billion more years). Unlike coal or oil, there is not a set amount of it as a resource and also doesn’t require the mining and extraction processes of other fuel sources.


What are solar panels made of?

There are different types of solar power, and specifically for PV cells, there are a few different types. The most common for residential or commercial use is silicon solar cells. There are also thin-film photovoltaics made from cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS), perovskite cells, organic photovoltaics made of carbon-rich compounds, and others. 


As for our most common material, silicon, you may have heard of the environmental impacts as it is a key material for electronics. However, mining this precious material is socially and environmentally damaging which is why it is important to reuse as much material as possible.


How does solar panel recycling work?

Silicon solar cells last for 25 or more years at which point they still produce about 80% of their original power. The long lifespan makes them worth the investment, especially as they become cheaper in the market. 


Silicon is not the only material used in solar panels as they contain aluminum, glass, copper, polymer, and plastic, of which many of these materials are recyclable. Glass is responsible for the majority of the weight, and the glass recycling industry is already established. Other materials in the panel may not be recyclable but come in much smaller amounts. 


The process to recycle panels consists of separating the materials and sending them to their respective recycling plants where they will be crushed, shredded, and milled. The recovery of end-of-life panels is projected to be a $450 million value by 2030, the cost of producing 60 million new panels. 


Conclusion

Continuing to shift to clean and renewable energy sources is essential for the future as we face the climate crisis head-on. Solar is one of those viable options, and recycling panels as they go out of service will be vital to making them an even more environmentally friendly option. Keeping these materials out of landfills and reducing the need to extract new materials can create an important closed-loop and circular process. We can extend the benefits of solar in doing so and continue towards a sustainable future. 

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