Recycling Solar Panels Could Represent a $15 Billion Opportunity By 2050

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on The Climate Change Guy blog. 

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By Dr Anthony Horton

The deployment of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels has grown at unprecedented rates around the world since the early 2000s, according to the End of Life Management-Solar Photovoltaic Panels report published in late June by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency (IEA). This report presents the first global projections for future solar PV panel waste volumes to 2050, and the findings are unequivocal: Recycling solar photovoltaic panels is expected to represent a $US15 billion opportunity worldwide by 2050.

Two scenarios are compared in the IRENA/IEA report: regular loss and early loss. Regular loss assumes a 30-year lifespan for solar PV panels, and early loss takes ‘infant’ or ‘mid- life’ failures prior to the end of the 30-year lifespan. Increasing volumes of solar PV panel waste represents an environmental challenge and significant opportunities to create value. Opportunities include the recycling of raw materials and the creation of new end-of-life industries for solar PV panels. According to the IRENA/IEA report, recycling of solar PV panels will be an essential part of the transition to a sustainable economically viable and renewables-based future.

As of the end of December last year, global solar PV panel capacity reached 222 gigawatts and is expected to grow to 4,500 gigawatts by 2050. As the demand for solar PV panels grows, it stands to reason that the volume of decommissioned solar PV panels will also increase. By the end of this year, up to 250 000 metric tons of PV waste is expected to be generated, representing 0.60 percent of the total mass of PV panels installed globally — which stands at 4 million metric tons. By the 2050s, 5.5 million to 6 million metric tons of solar PV waste is expected each year.

Policy action is needed to address the global challenges associated with increasing volumes of solar PV panel waste going forward. Frameworks that enable efficient waste management tailored to the needs of each country or state are essential. China, Germany and Japan are expected to be the top three countries for solar PV panel waste by 2030. By 2050 China is still expected to have the highest amount of waste. The United States will overtake Germany in the second spot with Japan expected to remain in third place.

Only the European Union (EU) has regulations for solar PV panel waste. The EU has pioneered electronic waste (e-waste) regulations that cover solar PV panel collection, recovery and recycling targets. The EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive requires all solar PV panel suppliers finance the end of life collection and recycling costs. In contrast, many countries classify solar PV panels as either general or industrial waste. In Japan and the United States, general waste regulations may include testing the solar PV panels for hazardous material content and prescribing and prohibiting specific shipment, treatment, recycling and disposal methods.

The IRENA/IEA report estimates that up to US$450 million worth of raw materials could be feasibly recovered from solar PV panels by 2030 — the amount currently required to produce approximately 60 million new solar PV panels capable of generating 18 gigawatts of power. By 2050 the value of recoverable materials from solar PV panels could be as much as US$15 billion — or the amount required to produce 2 billion solar PV panels capable of generating 630 gigawatts of power.

Managing the end-of-life of solar PV panels also offers opportunities that are related to the three tenets of sustainable waste management.

1. Reduce: Given current research and development trends, the raw material inputs for solar PV panels could be significantly reduced by 2030. This would also reduce the amount of hazardous materials used in the production process

2. Reuse: Rapid growth in solar PV panels is expected to create a robust secondary market for panel components and materials. This secondary market presents opportunities for buyers in countries with limited financial resources

3. Recycle: In the longer term, dedicated solar PV panel recycling plants can maximise the recovery of materials from solar PV panels. Technical and regulatory panels need to be established to guarantee that PV panel waste streams can be profitable

Industry, governments and other stakeholders need to prepare themselves for the significant amount of solar PV panel waste in the following ways:

1. Adopt PV-specific waste regulations: The development of PV specific collection and recycling regulations will be crucial to consistently, efficiently and profitably managing increasing solar PV panel waste volumes. Such regulations will also promote more sustainable lifecycle practices and improve resource efficiency

2. Expand waste management infrastructure: Management infrastructure for solar PV panel waste needs to be adapted to the unique conditions in each country or state. Rapidly growing solar PV panel markets such as Japan, China and India currently lack specific PV panel waste regulations however they have established long term policy goals

3. Promote ongoing innovation: Unlocking the maximum end-of-life value of solar PV panels requires targeted research and development efforts,plus economic and environmental analyses that maximize society-wide benefits while minimizing adverse economic and environmental outcomes

Given the rapid growth of solar PV panels as part of the fight against global climate change, the publication of the IRENA/IEA report is timely. As with any solution which governments, industry and individuals choose to implement, it is important that solar panels must not create persistent environmental impacts at any stage of the lifecycle. Governments around the world can learn from the EU and enact legislation that provides clarity with respect to solar PV collection, recovery and recycling targets. This ensures that any solar panel waste products are managed efficiently.

Once this legislation is enacted, the solar panel industry can continue to grow and innovate without placing its financial longevity at risk. Wider industry can purchase and install solar PV panels as part of decarbonizing their operations, with a lower likelihood of significant disposal or recycling costs which can impact their long term economic viability. Similarly, individuals can decide to purchase solar PV panels for their homes with confidence in the knowledge that the risk of disposal or recycling costs negatively impacting their household budget is reduced.

If governments, industry and individuals each play their respective part, the potential payoff is significant given recycling solar photovoltaic panels is expected to represent a $US15 billion opportunity worldwide by 2050.

Based in Perth Western Australia, Dr Anthony Horton is an international authority on environmental protection and climate change specialist. A highly sought-after consultant whose work is published in scientific journals and presented at global conferences, Anthony regularly travels throughout Australasia as an environmental advisor to international Government bodies and private corporations.

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