Growing opportunities in solar PV recycling
Technical potential of materials recovered from end-of-life solar PV panels could exceed $15bn by 2050
The global solar photovoltaic (PV) boom currently underway will represent a significant untapped business opportunity as decommissioned solar panels enter the waste stream in the years ahead, according to a new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency’s Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme (IEA-PVPS).
The report, End-of-Life Management: Solar Photovoltaic Panels, is the first-ever projection of PV panel waste volumes to 2050 and highlights that recycling or repurposing solar PV panels at the end of their roughly 30-year lifetime can unlock a large stock of raw materials and other valuable components. It estimates that PV panel waste, comprised mostly of glass, could total 78 million tonnes globally by 2050.
If fully injected back into the economy, the value of the recovered material could exceed USD 15 billion by 2050. This potential material influx could produce 2 billion new panels or be sold into global commodity markets, thus increasing the security of future PV supply or other raw material-dependent products.
“Global installed PV capacity reached 222 GW at the end of 2015 and is expected to further rise to 4,500 GW by 2050. With this tremendous capacity growth will come an increase in waste associated with the sector,” said IRENA Director-General Adnan Z. Amin.
“This brings about new business opportunities to ‘close the loop’ for solar PV panels at the end of their lifetime. To seize these opportunities, however, preparations for the surge in end-of-life material should begin now.”
“With the right policies and enabling frameworks in place, new industries that recycle and repurpose old solar PV panels will drive considerable economic value creation and will be an important element in the world’s transition to a sustainable energy future,” added Mr. Amin.
The report suggests that addressing growing solar PV waste, and spurring the establishment of an industry to handle it, would require: the adoption of effective, PV-specific waste regulation; the expansion of existing waste management infrastructure to include end-of-life treatment of PV panels, and; the promotion of ongoing innovation in panel waste management.
“Experience with electronic waste tells us that developing technological and regulatory systems for efficient, effective and affordable end-of-life management requires long lead times, said Stefan Nowak, Chairman of IEA-PVPS. “This timely report can be used by public and private sector institutions to anchor the necessary investments in technology and policy research and development and supporting analyses to unlock the significant recoverable value in end-of-life panels.”
“Responsible life-cycle management is an imperative for all PV technologies – the socio-economic and environmental benefits which can potentially be unlocked through end-of-life processes and policies for this waste stream in the future should be seen as an opportunity today to start extending the photovoltaic value chain,” added Mr. Nowak of IEA-PVPS.
In most countries, PV panels fall under the classification of “general waste” but the European Union (EU) was the first to adopt PV-specific waste regulations, which include PV-specific collection, recovery, and recycling targets. EU’s directive requires all panel producers that supply PV panels to the EU market (wherever they may be based) to finance the costs of collecting and recycling end-of-life PV panels put on the market in Europe.