Author: Tom van der Linden
Circular design and the recycling of solar panels are increasingly important topics that are surrounded by a considerable amount of both buzz and mystery. No one would ever deny the necessity of these concepts, but too few practical, scalable solutions seem to exist. The underlying business model still seems too difficult to validate, and without strong incentives, we might not soon see more than isolated pilot projects and hot air. With our upcoming Solarplaza Summit Sustainability & Circularity, we want to dive deep into this field and bring experts and industry stakeholders together to find solutions, highlight applicable know-how and accelerate the movement.
In the run-up to this event, we had a look at the recent headlines, to take stock of recent developments, initiatives and insights in the solar recycling field. News coverage of solar recycling is scattered and fluctuating, with a lot of buzzy content explaining the technology and necessity, but few highlighting the bigger picture and practical solutions.
One of the major headlines that really grabbed global attention was the release of Rystad Energy’s PV recycling report back in July. By, in hard numbers, quantifying the current and forecasted market size, it provided a concrete look at this segment that’s poised for growth. Putting the current market size down at a mere $170 million for 2022, Rystad Energy projected the market for PV recycling to be worth $2.7 billion by 2030, even approaching $80 billion by 2050.
To really go into depth on the actual realities and capabilities of PV Module Recycling, it’s important to check out the 2022 report of the International Energy Agency’s Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme (IEA PVPS) on the ‘Status of PV Module Recycling in Selected IEA PVPS Task12 Countries’. Though highlighting that many countries are putting End-of-Life (EOL) regulations in place and are establishing recycling practices, the report also concludes that “the current low volumes, limited available recycling technologies, logistics challenges, and undeveloped markets for recovered materials result in a high-cost, low-revenue scenario for PV module recycling globally.”
The World Economic Forum recently also shone a light on the topic with a concise piece on “how solar panel recycling can be scaled up now”. Stressing how it is still a relatively new concept, rumbling around in its early stages, it also emphasizes the absolute need for solar recycling. They highlight the commercial example of SOLARCYCLE, working in collaboration with major installer Sunrun. But they also acknowledge the need for government support to kickstart the movement, citing findings from NREL that, with modest government support, recycled materials can meet 30-50% of domestic solar manufacturing needs in the US by 2040. To put things into perspective, they make the comparison to the massive subsidies still going to fossil fuels to bring home the fact that it’s ignorant to say that crucial renewable technologies should have a subsidy-free business model to be validated.
Down under’s on the up, as a lot of recent buzz came from Australia. The state government of Victoria announced the launch of a $10 million funding round to award innovative projects aimed at recycling and reducing solar waste with grants and support. Anticipating that more than 187,000 tons of solar panels will enter its waste stream by 2035, it decided to act. Victoria, however, is the only state that has any policy on PV waste, as it has a law that forbids e-waste from being sent to landfill. The rest of Australia has no mandated PV panel recycling capacity or schemes, as highlighted in this overview by Reneweconomy about the call to fast-track solar recycling. Meanwhile, the University of New South Wales published a new research report on cost-effective ways to recycle solar modules. With a novel process that involves electrostatic separation to collect out valuable materials. Alluding to the scalability, the lead author of the study, Dr. Pablo Dias, said it would be possible to run a low-volume facility capable of managing 1,000 tonnes of PV panels a year (about 50,000 panels).
Bringing things back a bit closer to our event location in Brussels, Belgian glass recycler Maltha commented on how it’s already anticipating an influx in solar panels hitting their recycling facilities and is ramping up their capacity of glass processing towards 230,000 tonnes annually. Plant manager Wim Merket told Belgian broadcaster VRT: “We expect large supplies because the first generation of solar panels is now at the end of its lifespan and will gradually be replaced.”
On the front of the circular design, eminent Dutch research institute TNO announced a collaboration with 3 other companies, through which they’ve developed a solar panel that will last for 30 years, but can afterwards be (more) easily dismantled to give the components a second life. According to their ‘Design for Recycling’ (D4R) approach, they use new encapsulation technology that will enable the actual disassembly of solar panels for recycling, rather than having to revert to the more destructive current form of shredding to reclaim an inefficient share of raw materials.
6 July - Rystad Energy
Reduce, reuse: Solar PV recycling market to be worth $2.7 billion by 2030
26 September - Recycling International
Belgian recycler prepares for solar panel wave
26 September - TNO
Fully recyclable solar panels on the horizon
27 September - Utility Dive
With more solar panels entering the US waste stream, EPR policy and standards emerge
September - IEA PVPS
Status of PV Module Recycling in Selected IEA PVPS Task12 Countries
10 October - World Economic Forum
This is how solar panel recycling can be scaled up now
15 October - The Guardian
Australian research finds cost-effective way to recycle solar panels
18 October - Reneweconomy
Call to fast-track solar recycling as panel waste problem piles up