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Global Challenge: Effective Recycling of Solar Panels Emerges as Key to Averting Ecological Disaster

published: 2023-06-28 9:30

As the world takes leaps toward a more sustainable future, the emergence of a new environmental challenge looms large—solar energy recycling. Solar energy plays an instrumental role in combating climate change and decelerating carbon emissions, however, the life span of solar panels—roughly 25 years—introduces a significant problem: the inevitable disposal and replacement of billions of panels. At present, most countries are inadequately equipped to efficiently recycle these devices.

Rong Deng, a solar panel recycling specialist from the University of New South Wales, disclosed that more than 1 TW of solar capacity has already been mounted globally. Given each panel’s capacity approximates 400 W, we might be looking at a staggering figure of 2.5 billion panels, factoring in rooftop, ground, and water-based installations.

The UK government acknowledges that tens of millions of solar panels exist within its borders, yet a distinct absence of professional infrastructure for their scrapping or recycling poses a severe problem. Energy pundits are pressuring the government to act swiftly to avert a looming environmental catastrophe. Ute Collier, Deputy Director of the International Renewable Energy Agency, warned that a mountainous heap of discarded solar panels will manifest by 2050 unless a robust recycling chain is put into operation promptly.

The lack of solar panel recycling facilities is not without reasons. Earlier, the demand was insufficient to create a profitable scale economy, and waste materials for experimentation were scanty.

However, times have changed. The world’s inaugural solar recycling plant in France is slated for its official inauguration by the end of June. ROSI, the pioneering solar recycling company, envisions extracting and reutilizing 99% of the solar panels. Beyond recycling glass and aluminum frames, the state-of-the-art facility also has the capability to recover almost all precious materials, such as silver and copper. Recycled glass could be utilized for tile manufacturing or sandblasting, or mixed with other constituents to produce asphalt.

In 2021, global solar power generation observed a 22% surge. The UK alone installs approximately 13,000 solar panels each month. Given this trajectory, the volume of discarded panels is set to be massive. Collier estimates that by 2030, waste could add up to 4 million tons—still within manageable limits, but by 2050, the situation could escalate, with more than 200 million tons of expired solar panels worldwide.

French solar recycling enterprise Soren has been experimenting with various recycling strategies. CEO Nicolas Defrenne revealed that over 60% of the value is concentrated within merely 3% of a solar panel’s weight.

The Soren team aspires to salvage materials from retired panels, including silver, which could supply nearly three-quarters of the raw materials necessary for new panels, thus production more efficient and sustainable. Research estimates that by 2050, the burgeoning solar industry may consume a lion’s share of the world’s silver, demanding at least 85% of global silver reserves.

In line with Taiwan’s renewable energy blueprint, solar installation capacity is expected to reach 20 GW by 2025. Given the 20-year life span of solar panels, post-2035 could witness more than 100,000 tons of discarded modules annually. Furthermore, 0.5% of solar panels retire prematurely due to natural calamities.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs has initiated a solar module recycling mechanism, mandating installers to prepay a module recycling fee of approximately USD 33/watt, contributing to the recycling fund administrated by the Environmental Protection Agency. This strategic step ensures that solar panels, instead of becoming a troublesome waste product, contribute to a circular economy and sustainable future.

 (Image Source: pixabay)

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