Solar power modules, much like electronics, contain a variety of potentially hazardous materials, and cannot be safely disposed of in landfills. Solar panels generally function for 20-25 years, so the majority of panels manufactured are still in use. However, in years to come, their disposal could become an issue. New companies like PV Recycling are therefore looking for ways to recycle or reuse these solar modules when they have reached the end of their lifespan.
The solar industry in the United States has been steadily expanding, with 320 megawatts (MW) of system equipment installed in 2008, and a predicted 2,000 MW of panel modules to be installed during 2012. This rate of growth, due in part to the cost of solar power growing more cost-efficient, will put the U.S. solar capacity ahead of industry leaders like Germany, but brings with it more disposal problems. Scrap material, failed panels, and panels broken in transport will be likely to increase as the industry expands. PV Recycling is one of the businesses that have arisen to tackle the problem of how to dispose of this equipment.
Interviews with manufacturers conducted by PV Recycling showed that all manufacturers favored recycling as a way of ensuring that their technology remained green during all stages of its lifespan, and 80 percent wanted third-party companies to handle the recycling.
Currently, toxic materials like cadmium, silicon tetrachloride, and indium are used in solar panels. Environmental organizations and recycling companies are now encouraging manufacturers to prepare for recycling in the design phase, using less harmful materials and creating panels meant to be disposed of cleanly. For example, changing the process to make silicon crystals during panel production would not only use less energy during manufacturing, but would also make the silicon more easily reusable.
Recycling materials, even rare ones such as cadmium and tellurium, can be an expensive process. In fact, at the present time it is cheaper to use new materials, but as this is in part due to the lack of large-scale recycling programs. As more solar panels need to be recycled, companies anticipate that the costs will decrease.