With solar energy continuing to gain popularity across the world as a cheap and sustainable energy source, many are questioning what happens once the photovoltaic (PV) panels exceed their lifespan. Solar currently accounts for 2% of global electricity production and rising, “We want to get that up to 50% [of global electricity production],” explains Miro Zeman, head of the Electrical Sustainable Energy department at Delft University, “This percentage is rising because it is getting cheaper to generate electricity from solar energy and in some places it is even the cheapest form of usable energy.”
However, as renewable energy prices continue to drop and becomes more enticing for utilities and private citizens to partake in, focus has sharpened on how to deal with the high number of solar panels that will need to be uninstalled following the end of their lifespan – which is often cited as being up to 25-years! Several European nations began installing PVs on a large scale in the 1990s and as they’ve been decommissioned and replaced the question was posed – can these solar panels be reused or recycled?
In short: yes – but more needs to be done. “As yet it is not commercially interesting, but there are many initiatives underway to push forward with recycling using thermal, mechanical and chemical separation methods,” says Zeman, “We expect considerable progress to be made here in the coming years.” There are many reasons to be hopeful – the European Union and Japan have been researching and developing the best ways to reuse or recycle solar panels, which has led to a growing infrastructure focused on handling the waste created by end-of-life renewable power units.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) expects there to be up to 78 million metric tons of solar panels will need to be decomissioned by 2050, and Europe is currently acting as a case study on how to deal with it. A large majority (95%) of PV panels currently in use are crystalline silicon modules, and when you break them down into their base compounds, you get a different image of what these renewable energy sources are made of.
The frame is aluminium, the cells are a mixture of glass and plastic, while the remaining components are made from silicon – all of which can be recycled individually. Furthermore, these components are in use across various industries, making them valuable commodities worth reusing and capable of easily reintegrating the manufacturing chain. The catch is that you need to have the infrastructure in place to ensure you can recycle these panels, or risk them going to waste.
Foreseeing the need for a solar panel recycling infrastructure, the European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) helped set up PV Cycle, an organization responsible for researching and implementing solutions towards this end. Since its inception in 2007, PV Cycle has published several reports, helped create frameworks and established itself as a leader in solar panel recycling. It has helped push forward Europe’s PV recycling infrastructure and made it a case study to follow for other nations wanting to maximise the use of solar panels.
Waste & Energy
In and of itself, the process is relatively simple: the frame is removed, the glass goes through thermal processing at high heat (500 degrees Celsius) to separate the cells and reduce the amounts of plastic within, the remaining silicon is taken off and smelted down for further use, while any cabling is crushed into copper shot. Once separated, each resource can be sent to be used elsewhere, the frame goes to refineries, silicon reintegrates the precious metals industry, while glass and copper shot can be used in a variety of sectors. It is expected that many recycling plants will be able to recover up to 95% of materials used in solar panels – a big feat considering 96% of panels in Europe and Japan are recycled!
An almost perfectly circular model, this cycle of panel creation, use, and recycling has made solar power and renewable energy an even more attractive option for countries transitioning away from fossil-fuels. Coupled with a 2016 IRENA report that estimated that recycled materials from solar panels could be worth $15 billion USD by 2050, and the incentive to install solar on a large scale certainly seems much larger.
This is contrasted by news that other renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines are facing a crisis over their inability to recycle the blades. Currently only 43% of a blade can be recycled, while other components are in the 90% range, but there is hope that an increase in research and infrastructure could lead to similar breakthroughs as those reached on solar panels. However, certain solar panels can be reused for other projects before being recycled, making them even more versatile!
It is not uncommon for solar panels to last longer than their 25-year shelf life, and they can be still efficient enough to be reused. Although it is harder to quantify how many solar panels are currently being reused prior to being sent for recycling, it has created a burgeoning market for second-hand PV panels. The rising popularity of renewable energy and solar will ensure that recycling becomes more common and widespread globally, truly promoting the sustainable vision of a circular economy.
Practically all solar panels on the market and already installed are capable of being reused and recycled. As shown by the programmes led in Europe, the base components of the panels can be separated and re-enter the manufacturing supply chain easily. Considering that a vast majority of the compounds are retrieved in the recycling process and their high estimated worth, recycling solar panels is set to become as important a business as installing them!
Silicon crystalline modules, which make up roughly 95% of all installed solar panels globally, are entirely recyclable and the retrieval rate of its base compounds it very high. Other solar panel can also be recycled, but not to the same degree.
This depends entirely on the country in which they are installed and the infrastructure in place to recycle them. For example, in Europe there are directives in place to ensure that all solar panels be recycled following their 25-year shelf life. However, as they often exceed that shelf life, they are also being reused in other capacities, but the exact specifics are currently unclear.
They are often reused, abandoned, or shipped overseas for processing. There are limited solar panel recycling opportunities globally. Europe has most of them as a result of the implementation of solar energy in the early 1990s, but as most countries began installing them in the 2000s and since solar panels have a 25-year lifespan, there is still time to build both local and global recycling industries.
In theory, yes! Almost all of the base components within a silicon crystalline module can be recouped and then sent back into the supply chain. It is entirely possible to solar panels to be made partly from other recycled units – making it one of the most circular forms of energy in the world!
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