Building a Solar Recycling Industry

May 26, 2022

United Nations University:

E-waste is referred to as the world’s fastest growing solid waste stream. Since 2000, e-waste amounts have grown from 20 million to 50 million tonnes per year. A new report from the United Nations University-hosted Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) Initiative, published together with UN Environment, highlights future e-waste scenarios. Under a baseline scenario, the amount of e-waste will more than double by 2050, to reach approximately 111 million tonnes per year.

Some of that will be solar panels. But solar or not, it is urgent to get a handle on the burgeoning challenge.
Note the relative size of the e-waste stream vs solar component. (111 million tons total – some estimate 120 – vs 10 million for solar, see below)

Wall St. Journal:

The solar-energy boom will trigger a landslide of electronic waste in the coming decades. Some companies are already preparing for the recycling challenge.

Solar panels are typically built to last between 25 and 30 years. Most in use today have many years of life left in them, and the few that are scrapped due to damage or age often end up in trash heaps. Experts say the small waste volumes mean it isn’t yet profitable to harvest the glass, aluminum, copper, silicon, silver and lead from old panels, but the breakneck expansion of solar power is expected to change that.

The global volume of solar-panel waste generated annually will rise from 30,000 metric tons in 2021 to more than 1 million tons in 2035 and more than 10 million tons in 2050, according to BloombergNEF. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that the recovered materials could be worth $450 million by 2030 and $15 billion by 2050.

“We have to work today if we don’t want to have a problem in the future,” said Agustín Delgado, sustainability and innovation chief at Spanish utility Iberdrola SA, one of the world’s biggest providers of solar power.

Iberdrola has formed partnerships with waste managers to prepare for an increase in scrapped panels expected later this decade, and is considering setting up new companies dedicated to solar recycling, Mr. Delgado said.

The company believes it should be profitable to create an industry dedicated to recycling panels in Spain when volumes of solar-panel waste in the country exceed 10,000 tons a year, up from less than 2,000 tons today. Mr. Delgado said he expects that tipping point to be reached in 2027 or 2028, based on industry forecasts, but he said Iberdrola doesn’t have an estimate of how much money it could make.

Government mandates will be necessary to make recycling solar panels profitable because the value of the materials is low compared with the cost of collection and extraction, said Jenny Chase, head of solar analysis at BloombergNEF. The recoverable parts of a panel were worth $551 a ton based on material prices in September 2020, but it often costs more than that to collect the panels and then extract and purify the materials, according to BloombergNEF.

“It would be more today but still not worth doing at small scale,” Ms. Chase said. “Recycling happens where there is policy.”

The European Union, which has required an 85% collection rate and an 80% recycling rate for solar panels since 2012, requires companies that import panels in the bloc to dispose of them. Most companies buy into industry-led recycling programs.

Junk solar panels are considered electronic waste under EU law and are required to be disposed of accordingly. Mr. Delgado said industry-specific requirements would help solar recycling expand.

BloombergNEF says up to 95% of the materials in a solar panel can be recycled using current technology, a rate that French waste managerVeolia Environnement SA said it achieved at a pilot plant in 2018. Collecting the glass and aluminum is fairly straightforward, but extracting the silver and lead from the panels still can’t be achieved efficiently, Mr. Delgado said. The silicon in most semiconductors is recoverable, he said, but challenges remain in purifying it, which researchers are tackling.

In the U.S., where recycling rules are set by individual states, solar-panel manufacturer First Solar Inc. plans to step up its recycling business. Its factories are already equipped to recycle solar panels, but the company, based in Tempe, Arizona, is considering building standalone recycling centers as more panels reach the end of their life, said Patrick Buehler, the company’s chief quality and reliability officer.

“As the volumes get higher and the predictions come to pass, there is going to be a number of recycling possibilities on the market,” he said.

First Solar can recover close to 95% of a panel’s materials by weight for use in new products, such as the semiconductor for new panels, glass for bottles and laminate for rubber mats and bicycle handles. The remaining 5% to 10% of material, largely consisting of ground-up glass, can’t be reused in new products, it says.

The company said it recycled several thousand tons of panels in 2020.

PV Magazine:

A solar PV panel is mostly glass by weight. While glass is in theory easily recyclable, in PV panels it is contaminated with metals, meaning the recycled glass cannot be used in food-contact applications like bottles. This cuts out a large market for recycled glass and lowers its value. We estimate that 76% of the weight of a glass-backsheet panel is glass, which represents only 4% of the theoretically recoverable value.

Many discarded panels today are stripped of their aluminum frame and junction box and then taken to landfill. Recyclers do not take them for free and the landfill fee is usually the cheapest option. In Europe, where solar panel recycling is mandatory, it is mostly glass recyclers who do the job. For them, a solar panel is a very similar product to a car window or an electric hob for cooking. Glass recycling firms collect panels until they have a reasonable volume, and then use an existing recycling line for one or two days to process all the panels they have stockpiled. The process is called “mechanical recycling.” Essentially, the solar panels are crushed and ground into particles, which tend to be of different sizes by composition. These particles are then sieved or otherwise sorted by material size. The process is relatively low-cost; glass and metal recyclers can do it with existing machines and infrastructure. Around 85% of the materials in a PV panel can be recovered in this way.

Although mechanical recycling is efficient in recovering the bulk of materials in a solar PV panel, it cannot recover the most valuable materials, like silver and silicon. These materials represent around 62% of the value that could theoretically be recovered from a crystalline silicon module, assuming current scrap prices for these materials.

It is, however, possible to recover these valuable materials, including silver. The main challenge is removing the encapsulant material without contaminating or damaging other materials. There are several lab-proven options. One way to remove the encapsulant material in a “clean” way is through thermal recycling. In this process, the module is heated in a furnace to evaporate the encapsulant. The glass can then be recovered without any damage. In further steps, wafers, copper and silver can be recovered without any impurities using chemical recycling, which uses chemical reactions and solvents to separate the materials. However, these processes are expensive, energy intensive (thermal recycling requires temperatures of 250 C to 500 C) and hard to scale, as chemical treatments can take up to a day.


4 Responses to “Building a Solar Recycling Industry”

  1. Gingerbaker Says:

    “Solar panels are typically built to last between 25 and 30 years. ”

    Oh, for heaven’s sake, here we go again with bad information. Their WARRANTY period is 25 to 30 years (actually, we are now seeing the first 40-year warranted panels being sold). Their degradation rates indicate a lifespan of 2 to 3 times as long. And they would still be putting out 80% of their initial output at that point. But we really do not actually know how long PV panels last.

    It’s akin to the article saying that automobiles “are built to last 3 to 8 years” because that is the range of warranty for almost all cars.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      (Perhaps the solar panels being recycled now are the earlier generation ones that failed after a shorter lifespan.)

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Bear in mind the relatively short lifespans of various consumer e-toys and appliances, many of which people are encouraged to replace as often as possible. Products that rely on 3G transmission (“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”) are hitting the waste bin right now.

    Meanwhile, as Gingerbaker reminds us, modern solar panels are built for a much longer institutional life.

  3. J4Zonian Says:

    I’m glad people here have mentioned the short lives of cars, computers, stereos, and other plannedly-obsoleted electronic crap indulging the whims of the rich that the WSJ & the trolls are, oddly, not condemning. I shudder to think just of the piles and piles of 3-years-and-out, useless cables I’ve angrily tossed, or senselessly kept because there was at the moment of their demise no way to reuse or recycle them. No mention in the journal of the gazillion games and game platforms indulging and encouraging violent fantasies and then being tossed as soon as there was a gorier one. Not a word of complaint from the Journal about all this toxic mimicking of creative destruction driving the capitalist world of power-and-profit-for-the-rich. Only solar panels.

    I’m shocked—shocked! to find anti-renewable disinforming going on in this establishment.

    And not a word encouraging low-tech solutions like the appropriate technology movement of the 80s, or encouraging changing building codes to require passive solar, rain collection, built-in or even super-insulation.

    40 years we’ve wasted, allowing psychotic narcissistic psychopaths (more technically referred to as “insane assholes”) to stop needed change. Denial still rules—on the right, denial of everything, and on the left, denial that climate catastrophe demands immediate, radical solutions, and that the the right is tripartisan, insane, bent on fascism, and will never stop until we stop them.

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