While they are being promoted around the world as a crucial support for reducing carbon emissions, solar panels have a lifespan of just 25 years.
Experts say billions of panels will eventually need to be scrapped and replaced.
“The world has installed more than a terawatt of solar capacity. Ordinary solar panels have a capacity of around 400W, so if you count rooftops and solar farms, there could be as many as 2.5 billion solar panels,” he says. The Doctor. Rong Deng, a solar panel recycling expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
According to the British government, there are tens of millions of solar panels in the UK. But it lacks the specialized infrastructure to dispose of and recycle them.
Energy experts are calling for urgent government action to avert an imminent global environmental disaster.
“It’s going to be a mountain of rubbish by 2050 unless we get recycling chains in place now,” says Ute Collier, deputy director of the International Renewable Energy Agency.
“We’re making more and more solar panels – which is great – but how are we going to deal with the waste?” she asks.
A big step is expected to be taken at the end of June, when the world’s first factory dedicated to the total recycling of solar panels officially opens in France.
ROSI, the company specializing in solar recycling that owns the facility in the alpine city of Grenoble, expects to be able to extract and reuse 99% of a unit’s components.
In addition to recycling the glass fronts and aluminum frames, the new factory can recover almost all of the precious materials contained in the panels, such as silver and copper, which are typically some of the most difficult materials to extract.
These rare materials can later be recycled and reused to make new, more powerful solar units.
Conventional solar panel recycling methods recover most of the aluminum and glass – but ROSI says that glass, in particular, is of relatively low quality.
The glass recovered by these methods can be used in the manufacture of tiles, or in sandblasting – it can also be mixed with other materials to make asphalt -, but it cannot be used in applications that require high quality glass, such as the production of new panels solar.
The new ROSI plant will open during a period of expansion for solar panel installations.
The world’s solar power generation capacity grew by 22% in 2021. Around 13,000 photovoltaic solar panels are installed in the UK every month – most of them on the roofs of private homes.
In many cases, solar units become relatively uneconomical before they reach the end of their expected useful life.
New, more efficient designs evolve at regular intervals, meaning it can be cheaper to replace solar panels that are only 10 or 15 years old with updated versions.
If current growth trends are sustained, says Collier, the volume of scrap solar panels could be huge.
“By 2030, we think we will have four million tons [de sucata] – which is still manageable – but by 2050, we could end up with over 200 million tonnes globally.”
To put that in perspective, the world currently produces a total of 400 million tons of plastic every year.
The reason why there are so few facilities for recycling solar panels is because there wasn’t much waste to process and reuse until recently.
The first generation of domestic solar panels is only now reaching the end of its useful life. With these units approaching retirement, experts say urgent action is needed.
“Now is the time to think about it,” says Ms. Collier.
France is already a leader among European nations when it comes to photovoltaic waste processing, says Nicolas Defrenne.
His organization, Soren, partners with ROSI and other companies, coordinating the decommissioning of solar panels across France.
“The biggest [que desativamos] it took three months,” recalls Defrenne.
His team at Soren has been experimenting with different ways to recycle what they collect: “We’re throwing everything on the wall and seeing what sticks.”
At ROSI’s high-tech factory in Grenoble, solar panels are painstakingly dismantled to recover precious materials such as copper, silicon and silver.
Each solar panel contains only tiny fragments of these precious materials, and these fragments are so intertwined with other components that, until now, it has not been economically feasible to separate them.
But because they’re so valuable, extracting these precious materials efficiently can be a game-changer, says Defrenne.
“More than 60% of the value is contained in 3% of the weight of the solar panels”, he says.
The Soren team hopes that, in the future, nearly three-quarters of the materials needed to manufacture new solar panels – including silver – could be recovered from retired PV units and recycled – to help speed up the production of new panels.
There isn’t currently enough silver available to build the millions of solar panels that will be needed in the fossil fuel transition, says Defrenne: “You can see where there’s a bottleneck in production, it’s silver.”
Meanwhile, British scientists have been trying to develop ROSI-like technology.
Last year, researchers at the University of Leicester announced that they had figured out how to extract silver from photovoltaic units using a form of saline solution.
But so far, ROSI is the only company in its segment to scale its operation to industrial levels.
Furthermore, the technology is expensive. In Europe, importers or producers of solar panels are responsible for disposing of them when they become disposable. And many prefer to shred or shred the waste – which is much cheaper.
Defrenne acknowledges that intensive solar panel recycling is still in its infancy. Soren and his partners recycled just under 4,000 tonnes of French solar panels last year.
But there is potential to do much more. And he is making it his mission.
“The weight of all new solar panels sold last year in France was 232,000 tonnes – so when they wear out in 20 years, that’s how much I’ll need to collect each year.
“When that happens, my personal goal is to ensure that France is the technological leader in the world.”
This text was originally published here.