The supply chain disruption caused by the pandemic allowed many industries see with their own eyes the huge risks caused by problems in any one link of the supply chain. The solar industry is also faced a problem of polysilicon shortages and skyrocketing prices during the pandemic. Now the industry is beginning to pay attention to risk diversification planning and one of the methods that has received attention is recycling. In the past, solar modules could only be thrown into landfills at the end of their lifespan but in the coming years, as demand soars, technology advances, and material usage changes, recyclers are expected to extract billions of dollars in value from discarded solar modules.
No matter how the economy changes, decarbonization is already a future goal. Solar energy may account for more than 40% of the global electricity supply. The demand for solar cell modules drives a huge demand for materials but the mining and processing of these materials are currently concentrated in a few countries, making solar energy supply chains vulnerable to disruption and abuse.
One way to obtain materials is to recycle, but not only is high-tech equipment is difficult to recycle but also clean energy products such as solar cell modules, wind turbines, and electric car batteries. According to The Verge, most solar cell modules now consist of silicon cells coated with a layer of polymer encapsulant that binds the cells to a weatherproof glass and plastic cover. Although this electronic interlayer are designed to allow the panels to last on the roof for decades, the adhesives and sealants used throughout the panels make it difficult to separate out the usable material when these panels reach the end of their lifespan.
Norwegian energy research firm Rystad Energy reports that recycled silver, polysilicon, copper, and aluminum are among the top performers in the recycling market, but today silver and solar-grade silicon cannot be separated out using current recycling methods and are often cut up with the rest of the panel and sold as broken glass. However, the growing demand for solar energy in the future and the supply tightness of the materials needed to make panels, coupled with technological advancements that make it easier to extract valuable materials from old panels, lead to estimates that the value of recyclable materials for solar panels will experience exponential growth over the next few years, from $170 million this year to $2.7 billion in 2030.
Solar power, which started taking off in the 2000s, has a lifespan of about 25 years and the first wave of discarded solar panels is now approaching. While less than 500,000 tonnes of solar waste existed globally in 2016, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projects that solar waste could rise to 8 million tonnes by 2030 and 6 million tonnes of abandoned solar cell modules could be thrown away annually by 2050. If disposed of properly, this rubbish can be turn into treasure.