The solar industry is a good source of green energy which plays a critical role in combating climate change.
However, there is an impending environmental challenge concerning these solar PV. Therefore, the question that needs to be answered is, what will we do with the expected megatons of potentially toxic solar waste?
- Solar Panel waste
- The cost of solar panel recycling
- The process of recycling solar panels
- What is the current status of solar panel recycling
- The future of solar panel recycling
- Why recycling solar panels is vital for the future of renewable energy
- The market for solar panel recycling
- Wrap up: the opportunities for recycling solar panels
Solar Panel waste
If solar energy is to cement itself as a clean energy source, there must be ways of recycling the hazardous toxic material when panels reach the end of their useful service. It is estimated that 60 million tons of PV panel waste will be generated by 2050.
If no efforts in solar panel recycling are put in place, there will be unprecedented disposal of solar waste into landfills across the world.
The problem with solar panel disposal
Unlike Europe, the US does not have a comprehensive policy on solar panel recycling and disposal. This means that a majority of solar panels will end up in landfills after their ‘useful life’. Although not a significant problem right now, the issue could be an ecological time-bomb.
The photovoltaic PV panels contain heavy metals like lead. When not properly decommissioned, there is a significant risk of lead leaching into the environment from the crystalline solar modules.
End of life management for photovoltaic modules
On the flip side, PV panels contain valuable metals such as silver, lead, aluminum and copper. Other component materials include silicon, glass and semiconductors.
All these valuable materials can be recovered and reused. It is critical to do this to ensure solar power is clean and sustainable. When solar panels start degrading or are decommissioned early, there needs to be a comprehensive structure that guides the recycling of these panels.
The EU has put in place the waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive (WEEE), which requires 80% of all solar panels disposed to be recycled. The U.S and other countries have to follow suit and lay down substantial policies to this effect or face an environmental disaster.
The cost of solar panel recycling
The cost of recycling a solar panel is substantially higher than dumping it in a landfill. According to industry experts, recycling an 18 square-foot PV module costs around $15-$20.
In comparison, dumping the panel in a solid waste landfill costs about a dollar.
The highest cost during recycling of PV is crushing, sorting the PV modules, retrieving and refining the silver. From an economic viewpoint, there’s not a lot of money to be made at this time by recycling panels. Despite the lower cost, dumping the panels will result in an environmental hazard.
That’s why a policy is required to mandate stakeholders to recycle solar panels or draw meaningful benefits from PV recycling.
The process of recycling solar panels
There are many research studies underway with a focus on scientific evidence on the benefits and impact of solar recycling.
So far, there are two mainstream methods used in recycling PV panels – silicon based and thin-film based approaches. Although hindered by the considerable cost, some companies are already trying to draw value from recycling.
Silicon-Based Recycling Method.
In this method, the overarching process involves the disassembly of silicon-based PV panels. Glass and the aluminum framework are separated with a yield of 95% for glass. The glass and aluminum can be used in new solar panels.
The metal could be reused for re-molding cell frames. For the other materials, a thermal process is used with materials treated at 500 degrees.
Due to the heat, the binding between the cell elements weakens, with plastic evaporating, leaving silicon solar cells to be processed.
The plastic is then used as fuel in the thermal unit as a source of energy. The remaining silicon wafers are etched away and smelted to turn them into reusable slabs.
Currently, about 90% of all installed solar panels are silicon-based, and this method is the most prevalent.
Thin-film based Recycling Method.
In contrast to the silicon-based method, the panel is first shredded and then hammered. The hammer mill is used to dismantle the panel completely. The glass and resultant particles are loose, and the lamination no longer holds the material together. A rotating screw is used to separate the resultant solid and liquid materials, with the liquid dripping down into a container.
The liquid is processed to remove impurities. The remaining substances together with the solid material are processed to isolate any semiconductor materials. 95% reusability for the semiconductor material is achieved. With this process, approximately 90% of the glass recovered is reusable.
What is the current status of solar panel recycling
Solar power is safe, reliable and non-polluting. For these reasons, solar PV panels have huge demand in the quest for clean power. Taking into consideration that PV modules have a lifetime of about 25 years, it is only now that we are witnessing some solar panel waste.
The EU has put in place the WEEE directive, which requires solar panel manufacturers to recycle and dispose of solar panels that have reached their end-of-life.
The US is still trying to formulate policies for the management of solar panel waste. For a majority of stakeholders, the primary issue is the economics of recycling solar panels.
Efforts are ongoing by industry players to try and develop an economically feasible and non-toxic technology for recycling
The future of solar panel recycling
If the solar industry is to help in efforts for green energy, end-of-life recycling for solar cells should be embraced fully. Already, novel research in recycling suggests that 96% of material used in a panel could be retrieved after recycling.
Manufacturers are encouraged to use the retrieved materials to cut down their input costs
Statistically, by 2030, with the current trend, there will be 60 million recycled solar panels. These solar panels will be worth about $450 million with the capacity to generate at least 18GW of solar energy.
In 2050, we will have the capacity to get 2 billion solar panels from recycled PV panels. The panels will be worth $15 billion of recycled material with the capacity to generate 630GW of renewable solar power.
Large volumes of the first solar panels will be reaching their end of life soon. It presents an exciting opportunity for all industry players to start processing them again.
Recycling that old 1500 watt solar panel can create employment opportunities for thousands of people and create other financial benefits. It gives the recycled materials a chance to be used to add value and create environmental benefit when they reach the end of their useful first purpose.
This in contrast to filling up landfills and polluting the environment.
What is full recovery end life photovoltaic?
Research and development is being carried out on different recycling methods, to help recover more value from solar panels and increase the recycling quota to 100%. This will also reduce a solar panel’s energy consumption during the salvaging process.
The project involves developing treatment methods that enable full recovery of glass, silicon, metals and energy, and to find better ways to deal with toxic materials.
Why recycling solar panels is vital for the future of renewable energy
The solar industry is a good source of green energy which plays a critical role in combating climate change.
The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that by 2050, 78 million metric tons of solar panels will have reached their end of life.
From then on, there will be 6 million tons of solar panel waste annually. Current technologies available are not sufficient for the massive amount of solar panel waste expected in the coming years. Therefore, in the future, we need bespoke solutions deployed across many countries.
PV researchers aim to make the management of solar e-waste more economically viable before the floodgates of panel waste start to really open. The research centers on the full recovery of all metals and minerals present in solar panels.
If all these efforts are not supported, then solar power will face the sustainability question, and unfortunately, it will not pass. Policies and regulations like the WEEE Directive in the EU must be replicated and supported for an effective reprocessing program around the world.
PV manufacturers can reuse recycled components. This creates a win-win situation where manufacturers benefit from the raw materials and our environment is safeguarded from solar e-waste.
The market for solar panel recycling
In 2019, the market for solar panel recycling was valued at around $127.7 million. The trend is expected to continue due to the adoption of solar panels and the solar industry’s technical advancement. The recycling market is expected to expand by 12% through 2020, and numbers are expected to be better in the long term.
In the U.S, however small, Monocrystalline solar panels recycling makes up for 50% of the revenue share.
Looking over to Europe, in Germany the solar recycling industry is expected to net them over $70 million in revenue by 2027. The future for old PV cells is promising in Europe due to the expected technological advancement and the legal framework in place.
This can easily be replicated elsewhere in the world, including in the U.S.
In the U.S., companies are betting on technological innovation to recycle solar panels better. For instance, a company in the U.S called First Solar has researched and developed recycling capabilities. Their plan is to recycle and process their own thin-filmed based panels.
PV CYCLE is an EU organization that uses recycled solar panel components. They have partnered with Recycle PV Solar to recycle and treat all waste solar panels. In the long term, PV CYCLE aims to assist other nations to ramp up a nation-wide management framework of decommissioned panels
Wrap up: the opportunities for recycling solar panels
As with all products, once those products are no longer ‘useful’ they have to be disposed of. Preferably in a way that doesn’t pollute the environment. This often presents a challenge to those responsible for regulating and implementing policies which ensure waste is dealt with in an environmentally friendly way.
Waste from solar panels is no different: solar panels are complex pieces of equipment with many different components used to manufacture them.
However, research shows us that recycling is technically possible already and can be made economically advantageous. Recent history shows us that when conditions are right, companies and private individuals will do the right thing for the environment.
So it is logical to assume that as more solar e-waste is produced, companies managing this will achieve economies of scale which makes recycling of old panels attractive. If there is profit to be made from this recycling – or cost savings on raw materials for new products – there is no doubt that industry players will get on-board.