Solar Panel Recycling – Managing the Waste Challenge
Recognising that many people have reservations about solar energy based on the waste that may result from redundant solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, we provided information on solar panel recycling in NEW’s 2019 Sustainability Report. In that report we specifically highlighted the recycling process employed by the large US solar panel manufacturer, First Solar Inc., a supplier on a number of New Energy Solar projects. In this article, we will describe current solar panel recycling processes as well as new developments in panel recycling technology. Pleasingly, the progress in this field has been rapid and some processes claim recovery rates of the raw materials employed in solar panel manufacture as high as 99%1.
The solar industry places great importance on ensuring that solar energy solutions do not pose an intractable waste problem for future generations. Over the next 10-15 years, as solar energy technology is deployed more broadly and as PV panels reach end-of-life, PV panel waste will increase dramatically and comprise a material portion of the e-waste produced globally. It is estimated that the total quantity of PV panels reaching the end of their 30-35 year useful life will reach 9.57 million tonnes by 20502.
Recycling is important, not only to avoid large quantities of waste, but because recycling PV panels can unlock a large stock of raw materials and valuable components that can be used to manufacture more PV panels or sold into global commodity markets. PV panels contain rare elements like tellurium and indium, the global quantities of which are thought to be limited and hence re-use is imperative. Similarly, they also contain potentially hazardous metals like lead, selenium and cadmium, which should be captured and recycled to prevent leaching into soil and water.
In a 2016 study prepared by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme (IEA-PVPS), it was estimated that recycling and repurposing PV panels at the end of their lifetime can unlock an estimated 78 million tonnes of raw materials and other valuable components by 2050. Further, if fully injected back into the economy, the value of the recovered material could exceed USD 15 billion by 20503.
Global initiatives and policy are required to provide a framework for PV panel recycling. Recognising the increasing deployment of solar technology in Europe, the European Union (EU) was the first jurisdiction to adopt PV-specific waste regulations by mandating the recycling of all solar panels under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive (2012/19/EU)4. The core of the directive is extended producer responsibility5, meaning that the WEEE Directive requires all producers supplying PV panels to the EU market (wherever they may be based) to finance the costs of collecting and recycling end-of-life PV panels put on the market in Europe. Since 2012, the provisions of the WEEE Directive have been transposed into national law by the EU member states.
Additionally, in Europe the export of waste is prohibited which, apart from the economic, environmental and social implications, promotes the recycling of solar PV components and gives priority to the recovery and recycling of materials. EU regulations have effectively created the first mandatory market for PV module recycling6.
How Does Recycling Work?
Broadly speaking there are two main types of PV panel products – silicon panels and thin film panels and different processes have developed to recycle each of these two technologies. The panel composition and recycling methods are illustrated in the graphic below7.
Recycling in Practice
In practice, progress and commercialisation of PV panel recycling has been largely at the hands of PV panel manufacturers. First Solar, for example, began investing in recycling and established the first voluntary global panel recycling program in 2005. They now have recycling facilities in the US, Malaysia and Germany and offer customers a service to recover and process panels globally. Their technology involves a continuous flow process and claims to result in the recovery and recycling of over 90% of the semiconductor material and approximately 90% of the glass used in its panels. This material is then re-used in new First Solar modules and for new glass or rubber products8.
New Energy Solar has recycled damaged PV panels through First Solar’s facilities. Globally accessible facilities to manage PV panel waste are anticipated to come into existence as current solar installations age and waste volumes increase and as government regulation approaches the standard set by the EU’s approach.
Already increasing volume and improved industry processes have gradually reduced cost, improved glass and semiconductor purity, increased throughput capacity and reduced waste and the course and viability of recycling relies on these advances. Accordingly, it was interesting to see reported in PV Magazine recently9 new recycling technology which can almost completely recover raw materials, including furnace-ready glass, silicon, copper and aluminium.
Developed by Italian consortium, La Mia Energia, the system is reported to take around 40 seconds to recycle each panel, depending on size and recycling site conditions, and can process around 1.2 tons per hour. It can also be set up on a mobile as well as fixed basis, with the former based inside a 13m container and able to operate from a truck on site. The plant works only with mechanical separation, without using heat or chemicals, and apparently does not generate dust.
Consistent improvement in recycling and reusing of PV panel materials can only improve the sustainability of the solar energy industry and further entrench its role in our energy future.