The global shift to renewable energy has given rise to the issue of growing waste that may or may not be recyclable. As the efficiency of Solar photovoltaic panels continue to get better, many of the older ones will be obsolete. Can they be reused to provide equal value as the more efficient modern panels? Do they really need recycling? Let’s find out.
By the year 2017, over 4 million tons of solar PV panels were installed and out of that, about 43,500 tons of waste was generated. It has been predicted that the amount of PV waste will rise to about 60 million tons by 2050. The global PV Cycle network offers waste management for solar PV manufacturers. According to manufacturers, technologies are evolving to make recycling possible on solar panel failures, glass breakage and electrical faults.
There are 2 types of Solar Panels that are popularly used – silicon based panels and thin-film based panels. Both of them have different manufacturing as well as recycling methods. A silicon based solar panel is made out of 76% glass, 10% plastic, 8% aluminium, 5% silicon and 1% other metals. A thin-film based solar panel is made out of 89% glass, 4% plastic, 6% aluminium and 1% other metals. The differences in the materials used lead to differences in the process of recycling.
Recycling Process of Silicon based solar panels
At first, the aluminium and glass parts are disassembled. The rest of it is processed thermally at a temperature of 500° C. The covering plastic evaporates and is used as a source of heat. 80% of the solar panel is reused. Silicon wafers are etched away. The broken wafers are melted and reused for building new solar panels.
Recycling Process of thin-film based solar panels
Thin-film solar panels are shredded into 4-5mm sized pieces to remove lamination. Solid and liquid are separated with a rotating screw by adding dilute sulphuric acid and hydrogen peroxide. Glass is then separated from the larger pieces of ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA). The EVA is then deposited in a conveyor and collected, allowing the glass to fall into a chute where it is taken for rinsing. Once the cleaning is done, glass is deposited in containers for recycling and the water is pumped to a precipitation system to recover metals. The metal solids settle down and are sent for processing into semiconductor grade materials to be used in new solar panels.
In order to make solar energy beneficial to the environment, we must avoid dumping them in landfills. About 96% of materials from discarded solar panels can be used to manufacture new solar panels, thereby minimizing environmental damage as well as production costs.
How long do solar panels last?
According to studies, solar panels have a life expectancy of 30 years before they have to be discarded or sent for recycling. After the first 10-12 years of operation, there will be reduction in efficiency by 10%. In the next 20-25 years, the efficiency will reduce by further 10%. After 25 years, the efficiency of solar panels will reduce further by 6% to 8%, making it usable for a total lifespan of 30-40 years with reduced efficiency. However, there may be other factors that could damage the solar panels before it gets old enough. Apart from that, the rise in efficiencies in newer solar panels due to technological inovations may make the current solar panels obsolete long before they are dysfunctional.
What if no recycling is done?
If solar panels will not be recycled and directly discarded, there will be over 60 million tons of wasted panels lying in landfills by 2050. Since the solar cells manufactured today contain toxic substances, it will turn out to be harmful to the environment, defeating our purpose of making solar energy sustainable.
Check out which countries produce the most solar panel waste in this interactive map below:
Map Created by GreenMatch
Future Benefits of Solar Waste Management
In order to reap the benefits of PV recycling, a proper recycling infrastructure needs to be established to manage the ever-increasing numbers of solar panels that will be disposed in the near future. This will create new job opportunities as well as economic benefits due to lower manufacturing costs of recycled PV modules.
It has been predicted that recycling solar modules will save £11 billion in recoverable value by the year 2050. This means that over 2 billion new solar panels can be produced without investing in raw materials. Thus, previously used materials can be reused to produce around 630 GW of energy!
As the cost of using solar energy continues to drop, more and more households and businesses will prefer to be powered by solar energy instead of traditional grids. This will lead to a greener future, along with sustainable economic and employment opportunities in the solar cell recycling industry.
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