Solar panel’s Life after Death: Can Solar PV panels be recycled or reused?

The falling cost of electricity generation from solar has made PV panels accessible to more people than ever before and has resulted in an exponential increase in solar adoption. With more than 750 gigawatts of photovoltaic modules installed globally in 2020, end-of-life management or PV recycling is important for all PV tech organisations to ensure clean energy solutions are a sustainable component of the energy economy for future generations.

Like many other durable products and construction materials, solar equipment can last for decades, particularly with proper maintenance. In some cases, PV panels can be reused or refurbished to have a ‘second life’ for generating electricity. The other components of solar systems can also be handled responsibly. Inverters can be recycled as e-Waste and racking equipment can be re-utilized with newer technology or recycled like other metals.

However, the presence of hazardous materials in the end-of-life solar panels can result in significant pollution and health issues, if released into the environment. To close the loop in the energy cycle, the next mission of the solar panel industry is the safe disposal or recycling of end-of-life products. In the waste management hierarchy, however, re-use or value-added recovery/re-purposing is considered preferable to recycling.

How much of a panel can be recycled?

The following infographic gives an excellent representation of how much of a panel can be recycled

Fig 1: Percentage of Panel components that can be recycled
Fig 1: Percentage of Panel components that can be recycled

Is there an urgency to recycle them?

Yes, there is! The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) in 2016 published a joint report on the strategy for the utilization of solar modules. It is projected that by 2030 world waste of PV (accumulated) will amount to 1.7-8 million tons, depending on whether it will be regular loss (modules that have worked their lifetime in 25-30 years) or early loss ( prematurely removed modules, before the expiration of their service life for a number of reasons – replacement of obsolete equipment, mechanical damage to panels, etc.). Already by 2050, the volume of waste PV-modules, which served their term, will be 60-78 million tons!!

Fig 2: Estimated Cumulative Panel Waste by 2050
Fig 2: Estimated Cumulative Panel Waste by 2050

How do we recycle them?

China, the USA, Japan, EU countries are actively investing in research and development on the processing of solar panels. Today, there are two types of processing for PV Recycling – thick and thin (see infographics). The first one is the extraction of the main materials of the module – Aluminium, copper, glass, but plastic is simply burned. With fine processing it is possible to remove all chemical elements. The solar modules include raw materials that can be reused. Thus, in a percentage ratio, the crystalline silicon panel is 76% glass, 10% polymeric materials, 8% aluminum, 5% silicon semiconductors, 1% copper, less than 0.1% silver, tin and lead. The basis of thin film modules is 89% (CIGS) and 97% (CdTe) glass

Info-graph on recycling processes (Source: GTM)

If the amount of waste PV panels with a lifetime service up to 2030 is converted into cash equivalent, by recycling and extraction of materials, then the amount will be about $ 450 million. In turn, this amount of waste can produce 60 million new panels, which is 18 GW. And by 2050 this figure will increase to $ 15 billion a year! Of this amount of waste, it will be possible to make 2 billion PV panels, which is approximately equivalent to 630 GW (which is equivalent to the cumulative solar module installed capacity in 2019!)

Fig 3: Potential value creation through PV end-of-life management
Fig 3: Potential value creation through PV end-of-life management

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