Solar Recycling

1 minute read

It is encouraging to witness the global shift to harnessing clean, sustainable energy from the sun, but responsibly managing the solar e-waste as the equipment nears its end-of-life remains both a challenge and an opportunity.

The International Renewable Energy Agency released its report "End-of-Life Management – Solar Photovoltaic Panels" in 2016. The organization predicts the cumulative global PV panel waste over the years 2016 to 2050 will reach 60-78 million tonnes as worldwide installed solar energy capacity rises from 222 gigawatts (GW) to 4,500 GW over the same period.

From an environmental standpoint, landfilling solar panels and associated e-waste is not an option. Challenging PV panel pollutants include cadmium in cadmium telluride (CdTe) panels, selenium for copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) panels, and lead found in crystalline silicon panels (the most common form of PV panels). However, many jurisdictions, including much of the United States, do not currently have comprehensive and mandatory recycling protocols to manage solar panel waste – and this is where the opportunity arises.

Proper management of end-of-life solar panel waste can add significantly to the overall PV value chain.

  • Estimates reveal that by 2030, the global cumulative PV capacity will reach 1,600 GW. The raw materials technically recoverable from the two to 8 million tonnes of cumulative PV panel waste in 2030 are sufficient to manufacture 60 million new solar panels – representing some 450 million US dollars of value for new industries and employment.
  • By 2050, with 4,500 GW of PV capacity installed, the figures jump to 15 billion US dollars of raw material value recoverable from recycling efforts, sufficient to produce 2 billion new panels.
  • Check out the information captured in the article, "The Opportunities of Solar Panel Recycling" for more recycling insights.
Solar thermal collectors absorb the heat energy
Recycling solar panels - courtesy 'we recycle solar'

Recycling solar panels - courtesy 'we recycle solar'

Opportunities arising from appropriate PV end-of-life management impact the three principal aspects of sustainable waste management – reduce, reuse and recycle.

  1. Reduce: Current crystalline silicon-based PV panels consist of 90% or more of glass, aluminum and polymers – all classified as non-hazardous wastes. However, the remainder consists of silver, lead and tin and these are considered hazardous. Thin-film PV panel technologies are roughly 98% non-hazardous materials and approximately 2% copper and zinc, with traces of unsafe metals like lead, selenium, and cadmium making up the rest.

By 2030, experts predict that technological advancements will noticeably reduce the quantity of all types of raw materials required to manufacture solar panels while enhancing the ability to recycle and recover these resources at the end of a panel's life.

  1. Reuse: The burgeoning use of PV panels now and into the future can support a healthy secondary market refurbishing and reselling damaged and defective solar panels. The opportunities become particularly meaningful in less economically developed regions.
  2. Recycle: At present, general recycling facilities perform most PV panel recycling efforts. By employing separate batch recycling processes, these plants can recover roughly 85% of a panels' mass in glass, aluminum and copper components. Dedicated solar panel recycling facilities will achieve higher recovery efficiencies and greater output. However, the regulatory and technical systems required to make advanced recycling large enough to be profitable still need development.

The Union of Concerned Scientists released a blog post Oct. 30, 2020, entitled "Solar Panel Recycling: Let's Make It Happen." It offered encouraging news about private industry stepping up to the plate to increase the recycling that occurs within the solar industry. The article also suggests that currently, solar PV recycling is not economically attractive due to the relatively low cost and availability of the materials being recycled. However, government incentives and collaboration encompassing the broader circular economy of clean energy technologies will benefit the development of robust solar recycling processes.

What is becoming clear is that the solar industry has an opportunity now, before the arrival of the larger wave of PV panels reaching their end-of-life, to address the current shortfalls in recycling processes. Three promising options arise for industry, governments and other participants to prepare themselves: (1) adopt PV-specific waste regulations, (2) expand waste management infrastructure and (3) encourage ongoing innovation to reduce waste and improve recycling capture rates.

The European Union (EU) has regulated "extended producer responsibility" that lays the burden of taking back and recycling PV panels onto the panel manufacturers and not the end-users. Consistently applying this policy across the EU encourages manufacturers to charge end-users upfront for this mandated service. The resulting pool of money becomes a source of funding in developing a robust recycling capacity. Some state jurisdictions in the U.S. are adopting this recycling model, even extending the responsibility to include utility-scale solar panels that have previously been exempt.