Solar Recycling Is Becoming A Race Against Time

Highlights :

  • Solar waste is not yet a visible issue, but will become one soon, if recycling and disposal is not prioritised soon.
  • Pending a recycling policy, the government can at least ensure high quality standards so that the equipment doesn’t reach end of life before its promised date/s.

In the last two decades, millions of solar panels have been installed, with an expected lifetime of between 25 and 30 years. That means  over the coming years, a trickle of discarded panels will gradually turn into a flood, requiring effective recycling techniques to be in place soon. Solar recycling technologies, have their task cut out, needing to cut down module waste as well as the need for new material to build more solar equipment.

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A solar panel is a photovoltaic module made of materials such as glass, aluminum, silicon and copper. It uses sunlight as a source of energy to generate direct current electricity. A solar cell is a black mirror-like electrical device that is the key component of a solar panel. Techniques have been researched to maximize the efficiency of recycling solar panels.

Of late, many new technologies for solar recycling have been coming up. Researchers at the state-run Korea Institute of Energy Research (KIER), for instance, have developed a non-destructive technique to recycle discarded solar panels to create high-performance solar cells. The institute said the new technique can recycle both undamaged and damaged panels to achieve up to 100 percent retrieval rate of glass components. About 80 percent of other materials can be retrieved and recycled into high-performance solar cells.

“Recycling a ton of discarded solar panels has the effect of reducing 1.2 tons of greenhouse gases so this technique is the absolute key to achieve net-zero emissions,” KIER head researcher Lee Jin-seok was quoted as saying. KIER has transferred the technique to HST, a domestic solar energy generating equipment maker, for commercialisation.

Another case is of ROSI Solar, a French startup founded in 2017, which recently announced plans to build a new recycling plant in Grenoble, France. Yun Luo, ROSI’s CEO, has been quoted as saying, the company has developed a process to extract the silver, silicon, and other high-value materials from used panels. The plant should open before the end of 2022 with a contract from Soren, a French trade association.

Soren is also working with a French logistics company called Envie 2E Aquitaine, which will try to find other uses for decommissioned solar panels. If the panels aren’t operational, the company will remove the aluminum frame and glass before passing them along to ROSI to recycle, Luo says.

ROSI focuses on recovering silver and high-purity silicon, since these two materials make up over 60% of a panel’s cost. The company uses a proprietary chemical process on the remaining layers, focusing on removing the tiny silver threads that transmit electricity through a working solar panel.

Despite these technological advancements, recycling in the solar industry is not a widespread practice across the world yet. Only about 10% of panels in the US are recycled since recycling isn’t mandated by federal regulations, and recycling the devices is currently much more expensive than just discarding them. But the materials in solar panels coming offline each year could be worth an estimated $2 billion by 2050. Or higher, if commodity metal prices move higher.

India is among the top five countries producing solar photovoltaic power and will continue to further improve its position in the future. The government has already set its sights to produce 350 GW of solar power by 2030. Currently, there are no laws that mandate safe disposal of solar energy waste unlike Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) in Europe.

Under this directive, EU regulations require 85% collection and 80% recycling of the materials used in PV panels, which was extended to solar products in 2012. The solar cells manufacturers are bound by law to fulfil specific legal requirements and recycling standards in order to make sure that solar panels do not become a burden to the environment.

Similarly, recycling needs to be accorded priority in India as well to avoid land pollution from discarded panels. A not-for-profit organisation can formulate a roadmap to pave the way for a safe end of life management using low-cost recycling equipment and ensure they are used for re-powering. About 240,000 MW of new panels can be re-produced without extracting new materials. It will result in the overall CO2 abatement of 360 billion tons in their lifetime, as per some estimates.

Consultancy Sofies India, for instance, has joined the Solar Waste Action Plan (SWAP) pilot to investigate the feasibility of recycling photovoltaic solar panels. The innovative project, funded by Netherlands-based Signify Foundation and Doen Foundation, aims to enhance solar panel recycling practices in India. It wants to boost daily capacity to at least 150 tonnes of PV panel waste by May 2022. An important SWAP milestone was setting up a pilot plant in Gummidipoondi in Tamil Nadu with a daily processing capacity of 2.5 tonnes. The site is operated by recycling firm Poseidon Solar and became fully operational in September.

About 8 million metric tons of decommissioned solar panels could accumulate globally by 2030. By 2050, that number could reach 80 million. Recycling these panels could provide a new source for materials that would otherwise need to be mined (potentially under unsafe or exploitative working conditions), making solar a more sustainable piece of the clean-energy puzzle.

Like the national scrappage policy for vehicles, which was announced recently, and aims to reduce waste, create jobs, and recycle massively in the automotive sector, India will do well to be more proactive on the solar recycling front too, by laying the law for disposal and recycling early on.

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