The average photovoltaic (PV) solar panel has a lifespan of 25 years. Solar panels contain glass, polymers, aluminium, silicon, lead, cadmium, tellurium and gallium. These potentially hazardous materials require specialised waste treatment at the solar panels end-of-life. In 2016, the International Renewable Energy Agency estimated there were 250,000 tonnes of global solar panel waste. In 2050 they estimate this waste to rise to 78 million tonnes globally.
So what can we do with end-of-life solar panels?
In waste hierarchy terminology, upcycling is equivalent to creative re-use.
• Re-use entails repairing/refurbishing whole items or spare parts.
• Recycle converts of waste into a new substance or product.
The PV Cycle is a non-profit global network that specialises in cradle-to-cradle of solar panels. Hence, the end-of-life (grave stage) is not the last step since they recycle all the wastes. This global network works with manufacturers, importers, disposal companies and retailers of the recycled materials.
The infographic below compares the recycling of Silicon-based PV panels (left) with Thin-film based PV panels (right).
In the video below Veolia’s plant in Rousset, France demonstrates how to recycle PV panels.
Recycling solar panels is an energy intensive process. However, upcycled solar panels are not as energy efficient as new technology PV solar panels.
Whichever process you prefer it is worth considering the technologies available to manage the waste produced 25 years after you’ve enjoyed “renewable solar energy”.