Across the globe, solar energy installations are booming. In fact, solar and wind energy are expected to dominate the future of electricity. Solar is expected to take a 14-fold jump in capacity by 2040.
Although the future of solar energy is certainly bright, there is an impending waste management issue. What will happen to the millions of solar panels that dot rooftops across the globe when the systems are eventually decommissioned?
Is it difficult to recycle solar panels?
Unfortunately, solar panels are relatively challenging to recycle because they have so many different types of materials and this can be difficult to separate. They contain numerous types of metals, including lead, copper, gallium, and cadmium, have an aluminum frame, and silicon solar cells.
These various materials then need to be separated before they are reused in new products. Although non-silicon-based solar panels can have a recovery rate as high as 98 percent, the recovery rate for silicon-based solar panels was about 90 percent.
There are some recycling advances for silicon-based solar panels that have proven to be quite successful, leading to high recovery rates. A promising example is PV Cycle, a European solar panel recycling association.
They recently developed a mechanical and thermal solar treatment process that achieves an impressive 96 percent recovery rate for silicon-based solar PV panels. Even the remaining 4 percent is then utilized in an energy recovery process.
Is there ample solar panel infrastructure in place?
A suitable PV panel recycling infrastructure doesn’t really exist and needs to be created. The majority of the solar panels that are currently disposed of each year are either damaged or defective, but this will change over time.
Most of the solar energy systems dating back to the 1980s are still generating an acceptable amount of power today and are still in operation. Solar is a relatively new industry and most solar energy systems haven’t reached the end of their useful life.
Because solar systems have a 25 to 30-year design life, there will be a spike in solar panel disposal in the early 2030s. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), there will be 60 to 78 million cumulative tons of photovoltaic panel waste globally.
Although there is currently a relatively modest panel recycling infrastructure in place today, this trend will change, especially if solar growth forecasts are correct.
Is solar panel recycling important?
Yes, it’s very important to recycle solar panels, otherwise, valuable resources will end up in landfills. Solar panels contain heavy metals, such as cadmium and lead, which could leach into the environment if not properly recycled.
Solar panels also can contain rare elements, such as gallium and indium, that are slowly being depleted. Recycling these materials helps conserve the supplies for future generations.
In addition to the environmental benefit, solar panel recycling presents a great economic opportunity. According to a 2016 IRENA study, the recyclable materials in decommissioned solar panels will be worth $15 billion in value by 2050.
This can help inspire new industries and create green jobs.