The state of PV recycling: Building a solar circular economy
What happens to solar panels when they reach the end of their lifespan? Unfortunately, many end up in landfills. Find out what steps are being taken to improve solar recycling.
15 Mar, 21 / UPDATED 9 May, 23
If the adoption of solar photovoltaic (PV) power generation is key to the world’s energy transition, then recycling panels, once they reach the end of their lifecycles, is essential for a green and sustainable industry.
While solar power generation produces electricity without carbon emissions, it creates a different kind of environmental problem when waste panels end up in landfills around the world. PV recycling is fundamental to an industry centered on renewal. Recovering components from waste to produce new solar panels will offer new revenue streams, reducing the demand for mined raw materials. And it presents new opportunities to create jobs.
Recycling complex solar equipment is not without its challenges though. But, there are initiatives that show the industry is up to the task.
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Managing PV waste is imperative
The first solar panels, that were installed 20 years ago, are reaching the end of their operational lifespans. Which raises the important question: what to do with them when they’re replaced?
Jump to the present day and current technologies have extended panel lifespans to 25-30 years. So far, a relatively small volume of waste is being generated by early panel models.
There were a few hundred megawatts of solar capacity installed globally in the early 2000s. But with annual installations now topping 100GW, the world could be faced with a deluge of waste panels in the decades ahead. The infrastructure for recycling should be established as an integral part of the supply chain before that happens.
In fact, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimated that solar panel waste amounted to around 250,000 tons in 2016 and could reach a staggering 78 million tons by 2050. But the value of recycled waste material could exceed $15 billion by 2050. It could either be sold on the international markets or used to produce 2 billion new solar panels, securing future raw material supply and creating a circular economy.
A typical silicon PV module contains around:
- 75% glass
- 10% plastic
- 8% aluminum
- 5% silicon
- 1% copper
- 1% other metals such as lead, tin and indium
Thin-film PV modules are closer to 90% glass, but they still contain small amounts of toxic metals like cadmium.
It’s clear why, as the panels are decommissioned, recycling them (to recover these materials) is much better for the environment than disposing of them. Yet, the cost of recycling is higher than the cost of disposal, meaning financial incentives and a regulatory framework are needed to help establish facilities.
The challenge of solar recycling
What are some of the initiatives that are working to address the challenge of solar recycling?
Europe is the only region globally that has regulations in place requiring solar panel producers to collect and recycle the panels they sell.
The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive added minimum collection and recovery obligations for PV panels in 2012. Waste management firm Veolia launched Europe’s first solar recycling plant in France in 2017, ramping up its capacity from 1,400 metric tons of material, in the first year, to 4,000 metric tons by 2021. The plant recovers nearly 96% of the materials from a panel.
Solar panel waste in the UK is projected to reach at least 1 million tons by 2050, up from just 650 tons in 2020. The UK Environment Agency has set out specific requirements under the WEEE legislation for PV producers to finance the collection and disposal of solar panels.
Recycle Solar offers a decommissioning, collection, and recycling service for residential installations and industrial-scale sites in the UK and Ireland. The company extracts 90% of the glass and 95% of the semiconductor materials from the PV panels for use in new panels.
Other countries are starting to recognize the need for regulatory support. Australia installed a record 2.6GW of solar capacity in 2020 and could add another 24GW of rooftop PV systems by 2030, raising concerns about the disposal of waste.
As in many countries, solar panels are the fastest growing electronic waste stream in Australia without a dedicated recycling infrastructure. The country could generate more than 100,000 tons of waste panels by 2035. Current solar recycling facilities in Australia can only reclaim up to 17% of a panel — primarily the aluminum frame — leaving the rest for disposal.
Encouragingly, the state government of Victoria banned electronic waste from landfill in 2019. It’s currently leading a national working group to develop a PV waste management policy using Australia’s national product stewardship legislation. Formed in 2016, the group is assessing options for industry and co-regulatory schemes, which would see either a voluntary program put in place or a government framework setting minimum requirements that industry would have some discretion to achieve. The group will issue a Regulatory Impact Statement and make recommendations to Australia’s state, territory, and federal governments for a coordinated approach.
Plus, the state government of New South Wales announced in August 2020 it would award A$10 million through a Circular Solar grants program to trial projects that increase recycling of solar panels and battery storage systems.
By mid-2020 more than 7 million tons of PV panels had been installed in the US, before capacity additions accelerated in the second half of the year. Recycle PV Solar, one of the nation’s few solar recycling companies, last year formed an integrated partnership with the European PV Cycle waste management scheme to run a service to collect, treat and recycle discarded solar panels and components.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) at the US Department of Energy last year carried out research into the best strategies for PV recycling. The study recommends:
- Focusing on developing extraction processes to recover the high-value silicon metal from panels
- Finding ways to reduce costs
- Increasing the amount of material that can be recycled
With ideal conditions for solar power generation, India has ambitious plans to boost its installed capacity from around 36GW currently to 100GW in the coming years. The Signify Foundation, which brings lighting to underserved communities, off-grid solar association GOGLA, and the PV Cycle scheme, has provided seed funding for the Solar Waste Action Plan (SWAP) led by sustainability project management firm Sofies.
The project aims to provide a blueprint for the responsible management of solar waste in India and help develop a dedicated infrastructure. In its first phase, the project established a pilot PV recycling plant in September 2020, with an initial daily processing capacity of 2.5 tons that will increase to 150-200 tons by May 2022. The pilot recovers around 60-80% of the material from panel waste such as aluminum, glass, and plastic and is working to refine the process to recover the high-value metals.
These initiatives are proof that there’s valuable work being done to establish a circular economy in the PV supply chain
But, this is the only beginning, and more work from like-minded initiatives, government support, and funding are paramount to ensure recycling is put on the solar panel agenda.
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