Old Solar Panels: E-Waste Today, Gold Mines Tomorrow

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The global solar boom has been contributing a whole new form of electronic waste to the planet, but so far little has been done to recover and recycle the precious metals and other goodies that go into manufacturing solar panels. Blame the usual suspects, including a lack of international standards and end-of-life infrastructure.

However, with the potential for a $15 billion market by 2050 dangling in the air, it’s a safe bet that the solar panel recycling industry will take off sooner rather than later.

solar panel recyclingSolar Panel Recycling Numbers Don’t Add Up…

A couple of years ago, National Geographic took a look at solar panel lifecycle issues from raw materials to manufacturing, and on into e-waste.

The article described how and why very little solar panel recycling has been going on, and it identified the problem in a nutshell:

There aren’t enough places to recycle old solar panels, and there aren’t enough defunct solar panels to make recycling them economically attractive.

That’s about to change in a big way.

…But They Will, Eventually

A new solar panel recycling report from IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency, anticipates that a rapid increase in the number of decommissioned solar panels by 2050 will provide the recycling industry with a platform for growth.

The whole thing is available for download under the title End-of-Life Management: Solar Photovoltaic Panels, but for those of you on the go it can be summed up like this:

If fully injected back into the economy, the value of the recovered material could exceed USD 15 billion by 2050. This potential material influx could produce 2 billion new panels or be sold into global commodity markets, thus increasing the security of future PV supply or other raw material-dependent products.

IRENA bases its projection on the potential for the number of decommissioned solar panels to total 78 million tonnes (that’s about 86 million US tons) by 2050.

The agency notes that global installed capacity has already topped 222 gigawatts, with a total of 4,500 expected by 2050. Taking into consideration a 30-year lifespan, that’s a lot of solar panels to recycle.

The report urges laying the groundwork now for the solar panel recycling industry of tomorrow, by taking a few pages from the e-waste management book. That includes:

…the adoption of effective, PV-specific waste regulation; the expansion of existing waste management infrastructure to include end-of-life treatment of PV panels, and; the promotion of ongoing innovation in panel waste management.

Look Out, Recyclers: Many More Solar Panels On The Way

IRENA is also seeking to push the market for solar panel recycling by getting more solar panels into use as quickly as possible.

To that end, the agency has announced a new program called the The Solar Energy Standardisation Initiative. The program is a partnership with a nonprofit called the Terrawatt Initiative which launched at the COP21 Paris climate talks last fall (its website is still under construction as of this writing, so hurry it up guys).

The mission is a little dry compared to IRENA’s “$46 million stab at diesel,” but it involves a key area of improvement, namely, the wording of contracts for solar development and investment.

IRENA and the Terrawatt Initiative point out that COP21 participants have committed to a total of approximately $1.2 trillion in solar investment by 2030. The industry needs to attract more private investment to reach that goal, which means that governments need to streamline their regulations and pare down financing costs.

Here’s IRENA’s Henning Wuester explaining the issue:

High transaction costs for some solar projects are due, in large part, to the complexity of the contractual documents supporting the projects. Simplifying the negotiation of these contractual documents will help reduce transaction costs, and allow investment in solar PV to advance more rapidly in more markets worldwide…

As for how all that is going to happen, IRENA has already set the ball rolling. This week during the Intersolar Europe conference in Munich, a group of high level stakeholders are meeting to hammer out an agreement on standardized documentation for solar projects.

The list of players will give you an idea of what’s in store:

…Agence Française de Développement, Chadbourne & Parks, CITI, the Climate Bonds Initiative, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Eversheds, Gide Loyrette Nouel, Global Solar Power, Herbert Smiths Freehills, the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Finance Corporation, Norton Rose Fulbright, Simmons & Simmons, Trilegal, the United Nations Development Programme, and Watson Farley & Williams.

They certainly aren’t letting any grass grow under their feet. IRENA expects to report significant progress by November, when the COP22 talks take place.

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Image: via IRENA.



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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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