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Outlook for Solar Panel End-of-Life Recycling

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Jane Marsh's picture
Editor, Environment.co

Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.

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  • Jan 12, 2022
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The rapid growth of the solar market has also led to a rising number of decommissioned solar panels. The industry will need to find a way to recycle these panels to be green, reclaiming the valuable materials used in their construction.

NREL researchers have predicted that a sustainable and profitable solar recycling market could be possible by as early as 2032. However, the new industry may require outside support while researchers develop cost-effective recycling strategies.

The Potential for a Solar E-Waste Crisis

Solar power itself is highly sustainable, but the manufacturing process for new panels is less so. Photovoltaic panel production is resource-intensive, requiring a significant investment of water and raw materials. An effective recycling process would recover a portion of these materials, helping to reduce the potential environmental impact.

As with most products, there’s a serious recycling crisis for solar panels emerging right now. Despite the value of reusable materials inside them, few are recycled.

Right now, the vast majority of decommissioned solar panels are either shredded or sent directly to landfills, where valuable metals and raw materials are lost. Fortunately, only a fraction of the panels produced has been sent to landfills so far.

The solar panels that make up the “first wave” are just now beginning to reach the end of their life spans. We have a window of opportunity to intervene before these panels are landfilled. Effective end-of-life recycling practices, established quickly, could remove these panels from the waste stream before they are decommissioned. This would help make our use of solar panels as sustainable as possible.

The Technology and Policy Needed for Solar Recycling

Scientists have already begun developing new methods for recycling solar panels. One research team at Arizona State University (ASU) has developed two techniques for profitably recovering silicon and multiple types of metal, including tin, copper, gold and lead, from decommissioned panels.

The team found that the purity of metals recovered with their technique was greater than 99% and that the quality of silicon was fit for use in new solar panels. As a result, the materials could be used directly in the production of additional hardware.

Recycled solar panels could also be used outside the industry, even if recovered materials aren’t pure enough for reuse in new panel manufacturing. For example, all 2020 Olympic medals were manufactured from e-waste, like used cellphones, tablets and cameras.

Researchers in the manufacturing industry are also creating more recyclable solar panels. They are built to be easily disassembled and broken down into raw materials after being decommissioned without compromising efficiency or life span. More recyclable solar panels could make the industry more profitable — even while the technology is experimental.

However, while recycling technology is new, the solar panel recycling industry may need outside support to succeed. Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have recommended a $10-$18 per panel subsidy to fund end-of-life recycling.

This policy could help offset some of the high initial costs of early solar panel recycling technologies. According to the researchers’ projections, those subsidies would be enough to enable the industry to reuse or recycle 40% of all decommissioned panels. The industry may have a chance to establish itself while more cost-effective recycling strategies are explored.

With that recycling rate and government subsidies, the industry would be able to establish itself by 2032. After that year, subsidies may no longer be necessary — and advanced technology could help the sector recover an even greater portion of solar panels.

The NREL team also recommended alternative policies that could steer solar panels away from shredders and into recycling centers.

How Panel Recycling Could Keep Solar Power Sustainable

It's unlikely the solar power industry can become truly sustainable without end-of-life recycling. New technologies can make this process sustainable and profitable. Combined with federal support, these technologies could enable a successful panel recycling industry by the next decade.

Discussions
Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 12, 2022

How much priority is given on extending the lifetimes longer before the recycling is needed? 

Jane Marsh's picture
Thank Jane for the Post!
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