According to a report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency (IEA), the PV recycling industry may be worth as much as $15 billion by 2050. By weight, this PV recycling number is based on 78 million tons of decommissioned PV materials.
This projected total represents a sizable industry in comparison to the relatively young industry currently in existence. The IRENA report, “End-of-life management: Solar Photovoltaic Panels,” concludes recycling or repurposing solar PV panels at the end of their working life – around 30 years – can unlock a large stock of raw materials and other valuable components.
“Solar photovoltaic (PV) deployment has grown at unprecedented rates since the early 2000s. As the global PV market increases, so will the volume of decommissioned PV panels, and large amounts of annual waste are anticipated by the early 2030s. Growing PV panel waste presents a new environmental challenge, but also unprecedented opportunities to create value and pursue new economic avenues.”
As the global PV market increases, so will the volume of decommissioned PV panels, states the IRENA study: At the end of 2016, cumulative global PV waste streams are expected to have reached 43,500-250,000 metric tons, or 0.1%-0.6% of the cumulative mass of all installed panels.
By projection, PV waste streams will increase further. Given an average panel lifetime of 30 years, large amounts of annual waste are anticipated by the early 2030s. These are equivalent to 4% of installed PV panels in that year, with waste amounts by the 2050s (5.5-6 million tons) almost matching the mass contained in new installations (6.7 million tons).
Young industry poised for growth
Brussels-based PV Cycle provides perspective on this industry: “Recycling photovoltaic (PV) modules is still a young industry and only just gathering pace. PV CYCLE takes an active role in promoting important innovations and making our industry viable.”
While this may point toward a positive future, PV recycling in the US presently falls under stringent regulation, writes the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
“End-of-life disposal of solar products in the US is governed by the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and state policies that govern waste. To be governed by RCRA, panels must be classified as hazardous waste. To be classified as hazardous, panels must fail to pass the Toxicity Characteristics Leach Procedure test (TCLP test). Most panels pass the TCLP test, and thus are classified as non-hazardous and are not regulated.”
It is projected China could produce between 13.5 million and 20 million tons in volume by 2050, while the US could make up between 7.5 million and 10 million tons.
What PV materials are recycled
According to solarindustrymag, “Silicon-based solar PV production involves many of the same materials as the microelectronics industry and, therefore, presents many of the same hazards. These materials include:
“Global installed PV capacity reached 222GW at the end of 2015 and is expected to further rise to 4,500 GW by 2050,” IRENA director-general Adnan Amin said in a statement. “With this tremendous capacity growth will come an increase in waste associated with the sector. This brings about new business opportunities to ‘close the loop’ for solar PV panels at the end of their lifetime. To seize these opportunities, however, preparations for the surge in end-of-life material should begin now.”
Amin said recycling and repurposing solar panels could offer considerable economic value to the global economy, but that this was dependent on continued transition to renewable energy as well as putting the “right policies and enabling frameworks in place”.
The report calls for the adoption of effective, PV-specific waste regulation, the expansion of existing waste management infrastructure to include end-of-life recovery of PV panels and the promotion of ongoing innovation in panel waste management.
Some panel makers are said to be preparing for a future where all panel parts are recycled. Eliminating any potential hazards, although difficult, might be a great first step toward sustainability.
The report can be downloaded from IRENA.
Images via IRENA