Solar Panel installations have grown at an extraordinary rate since 2000. Residential, commercial and large scale solar panel projects have been installed around the world with a total of 222 Gigawatts (GW) in 2015. By 2050, worldwide installed PV capacity should reach 4,500 GW with China (1,731 GW), India (600 GW), the US (600 GW) and Japan (350 GW) leading the solar revolution.
According to a new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IREA), there is a huge opportunity to recycle the decommissioned solar panels in the next 35 years, as the solar panels reach their end of life. The ever growing photovoltaic waste can potentially be an environmental challenge, but will provide an economic opportunity worth $15 billion USD by 2050.
The report is the first of it’s kind to project the solar panel waste to 2050. With many raw materials making up a single solar panel (read our archived blog post “Are Solar Panels Bad for the Environment?”) and a 30-40 year lifespan, it’s extremely important for the industry to have best practices in place for “end of life” recycling and repurposing.
Seeing the economic opportunities in reusing the raw material and other valuable components, estimated 78 million tons by 2050, is integral to reducing waste.
Recovering the raw materials that go into solar panels will create a new industry that can create economic and environmental benefits. But the systems need to be in place for this to be successful. Luckily, the solar industry is already on it’s way to recycling 95% of the materials in the panels. But there also needs to be regulations and policies written by governments and NGO’s that address the issue of photovoltaic system waste.
Currently, only the European Union has developed regulations specifically for solar. Most countries classify PV waste as general or industrial waste. In the EU, manufacturers are responsible for PV-specific collection, recovery and recycling. This could be looked at by the industry as a burden, but as the report states,
“Recycling PV panels at their end-of-life can unlock a large stock of raw materials and other valuable components. The recovered material injected back into the economy can serve for the production of new PV panels or be sold into global commodity markets, thus increasing the security of future raw material supply. Preliminary estimates suggest that the raw materials technically recoverable from PV panels could cumulatively yield a value of up to USD 450 million (in 2016 terms) by 2030. This is equivalent to the amount of raw materials currently needed to produce approximately 60 million new panels, or 18 GW of power-generation capacity. By 2050, the recoverable value could cumulatively exceed USD 15 billion, equivalent to 2 billion panels, or 630 GW.” End-of-Life Management – Solar Photovoltaic Panels
This will also create new employment opportunities. With the creation of specialized waste management companies in the private sector and local governments responsible for waste management.
Reduce, recycle and reuse. The main ideals of the sustainable waste management can be applied to the solar panel sector.
As the industry matures and continued research and development creates more efficient systems, the panels will require less raw material, especially the use the hazardous and rare ones. Reducing their usage in panels will improve the recyclability.
Reusing panels will create a large secondary market for panels and their material components. Repaired panels could be sold to buyers in countries with limited financial means but who still wish to take part on the solar power industry.
Recycling the glass, aluminium and copper currently yields 85% of the total panel mass. As the industry moves towards dedicated recycling plants, this number will climb, with the goal of 100% recycling of the components and materials.
There is a lot to do to make all of this a reality. Coordination between the producers, industry and governments is needed. R&D needs to continue to guide the the industry towards solutions, as PV waste will continue to increase into the future. The economic incentives ensure that this will be done. If there is money to be made, you know that there will be people willing to lead the way and ensure our industry is a world leader in not only the production of energy but the responsible management of the waste that is created.
To find out more about Solar Panels Installations in Vancouver contact Mark Tizya at Novo Solar. He is a leading advocate for solar energy and is happy to answer any questions you might have about a residential solar.