The solar boom will create millions of tons of junk panels

Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg


  • Harvesting valuable materials from old equipment presents a commercial opportunity and technical challenges

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 manager Veolia 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 5% to 10% of material that can’t be reused is mostly ground-up and thrown away, it says.

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

Most of First Solar’s clients, which are primarily energy companies rather than homeowners, have agreed to pay a fee when their panels need to be recycled.

Mr. Buehler said he expects recycling will become profitable, as processes become more efficient and demand for sustainable materials increases. “I’m very confident we will get the costs of recycling below landfill," he said.

More than 90% of solar panels in use today have a semiconductor made with silicon. First Solar’s thin-film panels use a compound called cadmium telluride in the semiconductor instead, which the company says it can recover and reuse. It says its cadmium telluride semiconductor can be reused up to 40 times.

First Solar is also looking into setting up a recycling service to handle most panels that use silicon, Mr. Buehler said.

“It’s hard to put a number on, but I know our customers value it," Mr. Buehler said. “We have conversations where they really want to recycle. They can drive a module to a landfill and put it in there, but they don’t want to."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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