With solar power seeing its first big wave of popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s we are now coming to a point where the panels created during these years are coming toward the end of their predicted usable lifecycle of 30 years.
While no-one would argue that the increased availability and use of solar power has reduced our carbon output, we risk undoing much of this good work if we do not find environmentally friendly ways of disposing of used solar panels.
Currently, legal requirements for the safe disposal of solar panels vary between legislations.
In the EU photovoltaic panels are classified as electronic waste (E-waste) under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. This dictates that manufacturers have to take responsibility in minimizing the waste produced when disposing of photovoltaic panels.
However in North America and Asia, two continents responsible for around 70% of solar power production, much less stringent laws apply, meaning that landfill is the cheapest and most popular way of disposing of old solar panels.
It is absolutely possible to recycle photovoltaic panels safely and effectively. Currently solar panels can, if treated properly, be recycled with 90-96% efficiency, with only small amounts of glass, silicon and cadmium being unable to be reused.
The main prohibitive factor to such recycling of solar panels happening at a large scale is cost. In large parts of the world landfilling is simply a cheaper, easier option of disposing of photovoltaic panels than recycling. This stops corporations and independent users of solar alike from disposing of their panels in a most environmentally friendly way.
So what can be done to incentivize the recycling of solar panels?
The most obvious way of making this happen is tighter legislation on how retired solar technology must be deposed of. Although this seems to be an effective strategy in Europe, it has the negative effects of making solar power more expensive. This may reduce its popularity, particularly in the newly developing parts of the world that represent one of the ripest markets for increased use of solar power.
A second solution is to move toward a “lease culture” between manufacturers and users of solar power.
This lease culture would see the renting of photovoltaic panels become the main way of procuring such technology. Rather than purchasing and owning their solar panels, users would lease them on terms that suited their own needs, and return the panels to the manufacturers when the lease ended.
This can incentivize more efficient recycling of solar panels through several means.
Firstly, if solar technologies are returned to their manufacturer after use, then the manufacturer stands to benefit from reusing raw components in any future products. Almost all the glass and metal in damaged solar panels can be reused, with about 80% of the silicon and other semiconductor material being available for reuse after treatment.
The cost of treating these raw materials to the point that they can be reused should be offset by cheaper manufacturing costs of producing solar panels in the future.
Second is minimizing waste. The benefits gained from being able to produce solar technology more cheaply in the future should also encourage these manufacturers to both invest in technology that makes the recycling of solar panels more efficient, and to put waste minimization front and centre of the agenda when designing the solar panels of the future.
Ultimately both eco-mindful design and better recycling techniques need to improve in order to make solar energy as environmentally friendly as possible and a market based on leasing will encourage investment in these areas.
Re-using solar panels
A third potential advantage to solar panels being returned to the manufacturer after use is that it opens up the opportunity for the completely intact panels to be reused by developing countries at a cheaper cost.
Given the exponential rate in innovations in solar power technology, a time will likely come when organisation will want to replace their solar panels even before their current ones have exhausted their lifestyle.
Leasing solar panels allows organizations and individuals greater flexibility to do this, with the still functional solar panels being returned to the manufacturer and made available for resale. This complete reuse is the most efficient way of repurposing solar panels, and a “lease culture” would make this much easier.
A circular economy
The waste-reducing benefits of leasing are not a new phenomenon. Indeed, there has been much talk of moving toward a “circular economy” where leasing and remanufacturing leads to much more environmentally friendly ways of business. Given that we are expected to produce 60 billion tonnes of photovoltaic waste by 2050, surely making leasing the norm when it comes to solar technology should at least be attempted in order to preserve the benefits that this renewable energy source has brought us?
Written by Roger Wood, Business Development Director, GSM Finance Limited
For more information on recycling solar panels, read:
- Are Your Solar Panels Recyclable?
- PV Cycle Achieves 96% Recycling Rate for PV Modules
- Corporate Social Responsibility and Business Environmental Impact