Solar power installations are leading a surge in renewable energy capacity, and solar additions are set to account for two-thirds of the increase in global renewable power capacity this year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said last week.
Along with the solar boom, however, comes another surge—the end-of-life solar panels need to be disposed of, and solar panel waste will grow exponentially as installations boom.
We are now seeing the beginning of a major waste problem, or the big clean tech opportunity for the next few decades, depending on how industries, start-ups, and governments will approach the issue of solar panel waste.
Booming Solar Industry
Solar power installations have soared in recent years and as panel life is somewhere at around 15 years, now the first industrial-scale solar panels are coming to the end of their operational lives and have to be decommissioned. With the current solar boom, 15 years from now, there will be millions of tons of end-of-life solar panels, which, unless recycled, will add to the world's plastics waste problem.
This year, for the first time ever, investment in solar power generation is set to eclipse investment in oil production in 2023, the IEA said last month.
"The shining example of the growth in clean energy investment is solar, which in 2023 is set to attract more capital than global oil production for the first time ever. This reflects the changing tide in world energy," the IEA's Birol said.
But the bright future of solar has its dark and dirty secret—the huge amount of waste from end-of-life solar panels.
Researchers, start-ups, and governments are looking to create an industry for recycling solar panels, not only to reduce said waste, but also to recover the valuable materials used in the manufacturing of those panels—silver, copper, and silicon.
With a looming shortage of the key metals for the energy transition, recovering and recycling part of the materials used in solar panel manufacturing could be a valuable source of additional amounts of those metals that have already been mined.
The problem is scale. The industry is in its very early stages, but it needs rapid development to be able to make a circular economy opportunity out of this waste problem.
"It's going to be a waste mountain by 2050, unless we get recycling chains going now," Ute Collier, deputy director of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) told the BBC.
According to Collier, there could still be a manageable 4 million tons of solar panels for scrap by 2030, but the amount could surge to over 200 million tons globally by 2050 as solar power deployment booms.
That would be half the amount of plastic produced globally every year, the BBC notes.
The aluminum frame and the glass from the panels can be recycled at a high recovery rate, while it is more difficult to extract and recycle the smaller but valuable intertwined components such as the metals.
Emerging Solar Panel Recycling Industry
Moreover, current solar recycling facilities have low treatment capacity for PV recycling, the IEA said in a report last year.
"Because the capacity factor of these plants is currently low, high treatment costs per unit are expected, with several plants stockpiling PV modules until they have enough volume to process," the IEA noted.
Although at first glance glass seems to be recycled, the use of recovered glass is limited to less valuable products, with high transportation costs being an issue, the agency said.
According to Rystad Energy, the solar PV recycling industry could be worth $2.7 billion by the end of this decade, up from only $170 million in 2022.
The panel components with the highest value are aluminum, silver, copper, and polysilicon. Silver accounts for about 0.05% of the total weight but makes up 14% of the material value, Rystad analysts said.
Last year, scientists from the University of Leicester said they discovered an alternative process that recovers silver and aluminum from end-of-life PV cells. The team described a process using iron chloride and aluminum chloride dissolved in brines to extract the silver and aluminum from solar cells. The process using these solvents retrieves more than 90% of the silver and aluminum in a period of 10 minutes. The silver recovered is high purity, which means that it can be reused in industrial settings.
Rong Deng, Research Fellow from the UNSW School of Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy Engineering, says the biggest problem with the current process is the inability to extract the rare metals in the panels while keeping costs down.
UNSW Sydney solar experts said this week that the world needs bespoke technology designed to recycle important elements inside solar panels.
"But if continue down the path of using non-specialised technology to recycle PV modules, then we'll still continue to end up with parts that are contaminated with other materials which is not a sustainable solution," Deng said.
In addition, large-scale recycling has yet to start for solar panels.
"The industry is new and still growing, with researchers examining how to commercialize recycling to economically recover most of the components of a solar panel. Elements of this recycling process can be found in the United States, but it is not yet happening on a large scale," the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says.
In Europe, France-based solar recycling company ROSI says that its facility in Grenoble, the world's first fully dedicated solar panel recycling factory, can extract and reuse up to 99% of a panel's components, including precious materials like silver and copper. ROSI is currently the only European company currently operating at an industrial scale.
By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com
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