Circular economy

Recycling of solar panels, an undervalued business opportunity?

| Updated on January 08, 2018 Published on October 27, 2017

Gaëtan Masson is director of the Becquerel Institute, a research center and consulting firm specialized in the development of photovoltaics. He also works for the Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme of the International Energy Agency (IEA - PVPS). In this interview, he explains how the photovoltaic solar industry is transitioning towards a resolutely circular economy model thanks to the willingness of manufacturers and favorable regulation.

How much solar power capacity has currently been installed worldwide, and what is the forecast for growth for the years to come?

Gaëtan Masson: The photovoltaics market has grown massively over the last ten years. It has been multiplied by a factor of one hundred and is continuing to expand. In the early 2000s, photovoltaics was considered a curious technology of limited interest that Germany, the Netherlands, Japan and the United States were starting to experiment with. Today it is the most rapidly expanding energy sector in Europe after wind energy. In 2016, 300 GW of solar panels had been deployed worldwide, and the aim is to reach nearly 400 GW between now and the end of 2017. Since the lifespan of a solar panel is around 20 to 25 years, we will start to see first panels that were installed from the year 2005 onwards enter the market of waste materials. What is to be done with these panels, which have reached the end of their lifespan? It’s a question that’s of little interest to the other producers of electricity; nuclear for example, but it’s one that the photovoltaic industry itself wants to address. For more than ten years we have been preparing the decommissioning and recycling of photovoltaic installations so as to avoid repeating the kind of errors committed in the past and so that we can be – as we say in the industry – doubly green: green at the production stage, and green in terms of end-of-life management, so as not to leave future generations with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of solar panels that cannot be reused or recycled.

Is this type of waste toxic?

GM: 90% of solar panels don’t pose any major problems in terms of toxicity because the main technology used in photovoltaics is crystalline silicon. A classic solar panel is thus composed of glass, aluminum, silicon, copper and plastic. Concerning the remaining 10%, half is made up of more toxic components, like cadmium telluride, for which a specific line of recycling will be needed, but this is something that has already been taken into consideration by manufacturers.

What kinds of solutions are emerging – to manage the lifecycle of a solar panel from upstream to downstream?

GM: At European level, the European Union has set out an extremely strict regulatory framework governing the management of electronic waste, including PV panels. There are obligations to be met in terms of end-of-life take-back, and recycling. The association PV Cycle has notably prepared a recycling system ready to receive future end-of-life solar panels. Volumes of this waste stream are still too small for the recycling industry to really get behind it for the moment, but it is anticipated. Recycling is an extremely important issue because it enables the recovery of existing raw materials. Take the example of the thin-film solar cell known as CIGS: it uses copper, indium, gallium and selenide. Indium is an extremely rare material used in flat screens and certain types of solar panel. It will be crucial to be able to recycle end-of-life solar panels as quickly as possible in order to recover this resource, which will enable manufacturers to continue producing PV panels. So there is an economic argument for recycling but also an industrial objective, which is to limit the use of primary resources.

In the IRENA - IEA PVPS report, you estimate that the total potential material value recovered through end-of-life PV panel treatment and recycling will amount to 450 million USD by 2030 and 15 billion USD by 2050. How did you get those figures?

GM: These figures depend on the development of the market as we reach 2030 and 2050, but the scenarios we have used are relatively conservative, I would say that 15 billion USD is in the lower bracket of what we are expecting.

What would be your recommendations to businesses and to political leaders?

GM: Firstly, the current EU regulation seems almost perfect to me, so best not to make it more complicated. On the one hand, it’s certainly highly important to oversee that each member state, through national legislation, effectively ensures that the savings made over the lifespan of solar panels are correctly channeled into their decommissioning and recycling. On the other hand, it’s imperative not to kill off the development of the market by being overly cautious, which could have a negative impact on the cost of PV panels. Secondly, it would be wise to prepare strategic plans that take into consideration the fact that we should see the real development of the photovoltaic sector at the beginning of the 2020s.

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Published on October 27, 2017
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