The First Wave of Grid Scale Solar is Being Replaced. Advanced Solar Panel Recycling is Needed Now
The world needs investments in solar panel recycling. Of the various forms of renewable energy available, solar panels are low-cost, easy to deploy, and work well. They are proven technology, having been in use at the consumer scale since the 1980s and at the utility scale since the 2010s.
However, just like everything human-made, solar panels do not last forever. Most have a lifespan of 25 years or less. This may seem like a long time, but aged panels gradually lose efficiency and begin to cause faults, eventually failing. The net result is that as they age, they cost more to maintain and produce less energy during the daylight cycles.
Despite the problems associated with entropy, solar still makes sense as a low-cost, lower-carbon energy source. The world’s solar energy generation capacity grew by 22% in 2022 and in the US alone by about 41%. According to Solar Power Europe, 168 GW of solar energy capacity was installed in 2021 and more than 200 GW in 2022.
What Happens at the End of Life?
Because solar installations become less uneconomical before they reach the end of their expected lifespan, and new, more efficient designs evolve at regular intervals, a replacement can be more economical on systems in the 10-15 year range. Panels made with new technology are cheaper and produce more electricity than those being replaced.
This means there will soon be a glut of used solar panels that need to be reused or recycled. There is already a vibrant used solar panel market where systems and components of decommissioned solar installations are tested and resold. The commercial system experiencing reduced production capacity might still provide reliable energy for a long time to a less intense end user, such as an off-grid private home.
However, the used market is limited, and all panels in service today will eventually fail and need to be recycled. Entropy gets you in the end.
The solar panel recycling problem is new. Until now, there has been no huge demand for solar panel recycling because there just aren’t that many to recycle yet. But it is coming; the first wave of widely commercialized solar panels is just now reaching the end of life. Low demand for solar panel recycling has meant that specialized solar panel recycling facilities and processes have not been developed at scale.
But experts estimate that by 2050, we could end up with more than 200 million tonnes of waste solar panels globally. To put that into perspective, the world currently produces around 400 million tonnes of plastic every year. It is a looming problem that needs to be addressed now; before the crisis overwhelms waste facilities and landfills.
Not only do we have a huge potential waste problem, some of the materials contained within solar panels, like silver, are becoming increasingly scarce. This has increased mining intensity and interest in destructive practices such as seafloor mining.
A Business Case for Recycling
Solar panel recycling is now a big part of the solar energy conversation, both as a problem and a business opportunity.
ROSI, a specialist solar recycling company in France, plans to capitalize on this situation. The company has developed technology to recycle and reuse 99% of the materials contained in solar panels. Typically, solar panel recycling is inefficient, with only the aluminum frames and glass being recycled. Very little, if any, of the precious elements in the panels are recaptured.
Aluminum recycles well; it is easy to separate from the panel, inexpensive to process, and has a readily available market. The glass reclaimed from solar panel recycling is another matter. It is generally low quality and only suitable for bead blasting or other industrial processes. This low-value end product puts additional downward pressure on profit margins in solar panel recycling.
However, ROSI says they are able to recycle glass at a higher standard, allowing the formerly low-value product to be reused in solar panels or other similar high-value applications.
But more importantly to the ongoing solar panel recycling industry, ROSI’s new process recovers almost all of the precious materials such as silver, silicon, and copper, which are typically some of the hardest materials to extract.
The lack of availability of silver might actually limit the expansion of solar as an energy source. Currently, there is a significant supply shortage. In 2022, global demand outpaced supply by 240 million ounces, the largest deficit on record.
This was due to a number of factors, including:
- Increased demand from investors, who buy silver as a hedge against inflation and other economic uncertainties.
- Increased demand from the industrial sector, which uses silver in various products, including solar panels, electronics, and medical devices.
- Declining silver production, as mines are becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to operate.
The silver supply shortage is expected to continue in the years to come, but with new processes being developed by ROSI and others, these rare materials can be captured. They can be reused to make new, more powerful solar units or sold on the open market as a higher-value commodity.
Each solar panel contains a substantial amount of silver and other high-value materials, but they are in tiny sizes and are mixed with other components. Like many other combined products, until recycling technology is improved, it will not be economically viable to separate them. Because there is a need for solar panel recycling just to deal with the sheer volume of waste expected, and the elements contained in them have become so valuable, efficiently recapturing them makes for a much stronger business case.
It is estimated that 75% of the materials needed to make new solar panels could be provided through solar panel recycling of existing aged panels. The process is not 100% circular, but it is getting better and is the starting point for a valuable and promising new industry: advanced solar panel recycling.