“Dilemma? Did I read that right? I thought solar was mighty and noble.”
Guilty as charged. You read it right.
I am one of the biggest advocates of solar power in the neighborhood. I truly believe it is the solution to climate emergencies and to the growing needs of electricity generation around the world. Don’t take my word for it, there’s data to prove it.
But alas, there’s always a perspective or two in any business, any industry and any market that makes you pause, scratch your head and think. Think hard. Panel recycling is that matter in solar asset management.
Nobody wants to talk about end of life, especially if it’s concerning those graceful and gleaming solar PV panels under the sun. But I’ve always said, renewable energy is all about inclusiveness and a united front against a common problem: climate crises. Thus, to make a true impact with clean power, we need to address the not-so-pleasant, kill-me-now details as well.
So, let’s talk about solar panel recycling, what it is and why it’s such a debatable topic.
Stay with me, I’ve got a lot to tell you.
What is ‘Solar Junk’?
Solar power is the most environmentally friendly and cost-effective means of electricity production. It has a direct impact on the wellbeing of humanity and wildlife by reducing CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases. So, the benefits of going solar are clear. Well, right up until a solar farm reaches the end of its life.
Every solar panel has an operational lifecycle of 25-30 years. At the end of this life, even though the panel is still physically intact, it doesn’t work as optimally as it did in those 30 years. Hence, it’s said to have reached the end of its useful life. Now, if it isn’t mounted on a racking, capturing sunlight and processing it into electricity within the silicone cells, what do we even call it?
We call it solar junk.
In a study by the World Economic Forum in 2018, it was estimated that in the next five years, 70,000 new solar panels will be added and installed around the world, every hour. Every single hour. Fast forward 20 years, this rising demand for solar power will translate into a growing need to make responsible recycling or disposing a core issue in solar asset management.
So, where is this solar junk? Most developed and developing economies of the world are still in phase 1 of their solar asset management, i.e. they are busy producing, installing and operating solar panels. However, it’s only a matter of time till these aging panels enter the next phase of their lives.
But why bother worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet? I want to impart the urgency of why we should at least starting thinking about solar recycling in these words from Sam Vanderhoof, former president of Schott Solar:
“I’ve been working in solar since 1976. I’ve been doing it a long time, and that’s part of my guilt. I’ve been involved with millions of solar panels going into the field, and now they’re getting old,” he said. “The industry seems to think—myself included—that there isn’t a problem yet. The reality is that there is a problem now, and it’s only going to get larger, rapidly expanding as the PV industry expanded 10 years ago.”
One word: Goosebumps
The Problem with Solar Waste
Lu Fang, Secretary General of the Photovoltaics Division for China Renewable Energy Society, has been writing and advocating for solar recycling for years now. Currently, China hosts the largest family of solar PV panels in the world. In 2016-2017, it had a total capacity of 80GW, with many more, multi million-dollar investments planned for the future.
Fang asserts that by 2034, the country will have at least 70GW worth of retired panels in its lap. What will it do? Where will all these panels go?
As with any manufactured product, accounting for retired panels is a concern. There are two options to deal with them, and the exact process varies depending on whether you’re dealing with silicon or thin-film panels:
- Disposing Panels
Panels that are broken are usually piled up in landfills. There are a number of concerns regarding this mode of disposal.
Since 90% of panels are made of glass, the rest is a mixture of silicone, precious metals, plastic and a back sheet.
According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, in 2016, there was 250,000 metric tons of solar waste in the world. At this rate, piles of decommissioned panels will begin posing a big problem by the early 2030s.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a group in the solar industry that isn’t ready to rule out landfilling aging panels as a responsible means of disposal. Studies conducted by the International Energy Agency’s Photovoltaics Power Systems Programme, suggest that seeping toxins from landfills do not pose adverse threat to human health.
- Recycling Panels
There are two perspectives to recycling solar panels.
First, sending aged or broken panels to recycling facilities. Such responsible disposing allows for the recovery of rare elements like silver, gold, and extremely pure silicon. Extracting these is not only environmentally beneficially, it will also help fulfill long term demand for solar PV panels.
The IRENA forecasts recovering 78 million tons of raw material, translating into $15 billion, with solar module recycling by the year 2050. This
In silicon panels, about 95% of the glass can be reused, and the extreme heat used on what remains means plastic evaporates and the silicon cells can be further processed. 80% of this can be reused, and the rest is further refined. Thin-film panels go through a bit more processing: they’re shredded, put through a hammermill so that particles are no larger than 4 – 5 mm, and the resulting liquids and solids are separated with a rotating screw. Liquids are precipitated and dewatered, then goes through metal processing to separate semiconductor materials, of which 95% can be reused. Solids are contaminated with interlayer materials, so they’re vibrated to separate, and 90% of the glass is reused.
Second, the term recycling is also being used in the context of selling old panels to secondary markets at a low price. Economies that can’t afford to purchase brand new solar panels can jump on the clean power bandwagon by producing electricity with used panels.
Who Should Be Responsible for Solar Waste?
With all these considerations and facts in place, is solar recycling hazardous or non-hazardous? It’s hard to say. Each panel considered for treatment has to be tested for toxicity. Following this assessment, it is either sent to the hazardous facility or the nonhazardous one.
Being such a high involvement decision, who should be responsible to ensure proper end-of-life treatment of solar panels? Well, it’s only fair if the responsibility falls on all shoulders in the supply chain, with continuous measures taken on an international level.
Some proposal put forward urge lawmakers and regulatory bodies to enforce the following guidelines:
- At the local level, adding a fee to the price of solar panels. This fee will internalize the cost of safely disposing, recycling and meeting other end-of-life needs for panels. Taking this cost away from future buyers/taxpayers does seem like a better way to ensure solar waste is treated with care and consideration.
- At the federal level, encouraging citizens to take a stand for enforcement of disposal laws for solar. The argument is that since the government gives citizens the right to file for lawsuits against companies that are not environmentally conscious, they should feel the same towards solar disposal. Protecting the society from toxic exposure should be everyone’s responsibility.
- At a global level, the UN should place strict measures on the movement of toxic and e-waste across borders. As part of its Global Partnership for Waste Management Program, it should impose fee on recycling firms selling used solar panels to secondary markets. Thus, ensuring that panels end up in proper, high tech recycling facilities.
Is There a Way Forward?
How pressing is disposal and recycling in solar asset management? Unfortunately, the answer to this query is subjective. While the vast majority is still in awe of the wonderful things solar power does for the world, environmental scientists and solar veterans have taken it upon themselves to set regular reminders.
Just like Sam Vanderhoof and Lu Fang, other notable industry experts have started to realize that the global solar boom has environmental and social challenges. In March 2020, the Washington State & Senate passed a bill that mandates the creation of a task force to put in place solid measures for recycling. This body is responsible for carrying out an in-depth analysis of issues related to end-of-life of solar panels and make recommendations.
These recommendations will not come into effect immediately. We know it will take a while for solar recycling and disposal methods to be perfected.
However, one thing is clear: if solar asset management will continue to power our world, it will have to be held accountable for responsible end-of-life management practices as well.