By 2050, the International Renewable Energy Agency predicts that solar power will account for 25% of the world’s energy. The photovoltaic (PV) cells and modules that provide this power have limited lifespans. Over time, materials degrade and energy output decreases. With an increased reliance on solar panels comes a growing responsibility to determine what happens to these panels after they’re no longer used to power homes, businesses, or infrastructure.
Renewable energy still has undesired byproducts, including large equipment with finite periods of usefulness. In order to address climate change with renewable energy, public and private entities alike must take an innovative approach to reuse and recycling. This is especially true considering recycling solar panels is not a lucrative business in and of itself. According to environmental consultant Kelly Sarber, it can cost as much as $30 to recycle a solar panel, only to recover $3 to $4 worth of “reusable and marketable material.”
Innovative Approaches to End-of-Life
However, choosing not to recycle solar panels is not an option. Without recycling, “there would be 60 million tons of PV panels waste lying in landfills by the year 2050.” Solar panels are made of materials already known to be recyclable, including glass, plastic, aluminum, and silicon. Still, questions remain:
Who will recycle solar panels?
Because solar panels have a decades-long life, there are fewer panels that need to be recycled today than there will be in the future. Therefore, solar panel recycling is still an evolving industry. In countries with a larger dependence on solar power, there are entities solely dedicated to solar panel recycling, such as Europe’s PV CYCLE and Australian companies Reclaim PV Recycling and PV Industries. There are also opportunities for existing recycling companies and facilities with experience decommissioning equipment with similar materials, such as flat screen TVs.
How will recycling be enforced?
Thus far, recycling is enforced through laws requiring it. Innovative public and private cooperation will be necessary to ensure solar panels have as little environmental impact as possible. The European Union considers PV equipment part of its Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. In the US, laws are patchworked, with state and local governments placing responsibility for recycling squarely on manufacturers’ shoulders.
Innovation Beyond Recycling
The impact solar panels have on the environment can be minimized throughout their lifecycle, not just at the end of their useful life.
Another innovative approach to the end of a PV panel’s life is “design-for-recycling.” Rather than wait until a solar model is out of commission to determine how it will be disposed of, engineers are improving product design to minimize the environmental impact of the panels, both now and later. These improvements include eliminating toxic materials, designing panels that are easier to repair, and using recycled materials from the start.
Also of consideration is the fact that most solar panels still effectively capture solar energy at the end of their lives, just not as efficiently as they once did. Their decreased efficiency makes them less practical for large arrays in developed nations. However, they can be reused in places where efficiency and profitability are less important, such as hospitals or schools in emerging markets.