This Article Was Written By Energy Watch | 02.11.23 | 10:57 AM Solar energy has emerged as an energy source that could realistically transform our sustainable future, just in time now, as climate change rears its ugly head. Technological advancements have driven solar photovoltaic (PV) production costs down, and with solar’s inherent sustainability and ability to play a key role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, harnessing the power of the sun has become a global phenomenon. Over time, however, naturally, panels lose their ability to absorb sunlight and convert it to solar energy due to normal wear and tear as well as other factors such as exposure to harsh weather and the quality of materials used. Most solar panels have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years, so while it will be a long time before there is a large influx of decommissioned solar panels, with solar’s current popularity, we need to ensure the lifecycle of a solar panel is sustainable. This begs the question – what should we do to get ahead of this emerging solar concern? The Potential Challenge with Solar Panel Waste The solar photovoltaic (PV) boom has been a relatively recent phenomenon, so despite its current popularity, only a comparatively small number of panels have been decommissioned. Up till now, there has not been a pressing need for facilities to manage solar panel waste. In fact, in the recycling facilities that are currently equipped for it, mostly Even then, the costs involved in transporting and extracting the materials far outweigh the monetary gains from recycling solar panels – approximately 3 USD profit against up to 25 USD in costs. However, an estimated 80 million tonnes of solar panels are expected to reach the end of their lifespan by 2050. Without proper recycling and disposal methods for solar panels in place, we stand the risk of damaging the environment or unnecessarily depleting natural resources. Researchers estimate that by 2028, solar e-waste will contain over 1 billion USD in harvestable materials, which, on another spectrum, provides a huge opportunity once the recycling challenge is addressed and put into practice on a larger scale commercially. Redirecting Our Solar Future Efforts to address solar panel waste and redirect our solar future are gradually gaining momentum. In some countries, regulatory measures and technological innovations are being developed to establish responsible disposal and recycling practices. Most notably is the European Union (EU)’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. Since 2012, this directive has provided a legal framework for the region that mandates the recycling of solar panels alongside other electronic products. This is done by making EU manufacturers responsible for their products’ end-of-life disposal. Besides this, a number of dedicated solar panel recyclers are working to separate and purify the more valuable components of solar panels such as silicon and silver to increase the efficiency of solar e-waste recycling. In Malaysia, national utility Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) has developed an energy-efficient hybrid pyrolysis heating system for recovering the valuable materials in solar panels. “Through the pyrolysis process of thermal decomposition, the PV cells are broken down into their constituent materials, such as glass, silicon, metals, and other trace elements,” shared Ir. Ts. Noraziah Muda, Head of Renewable Energy & Green Technology (REGT) Unit, TNB Research (TNBR) Sdn. Bhd., “these materials can be recovered in a purer form and even be reused in the production of new solar panels, subjected to quality control measures to ensure they meet the necessary standards for use in manufacturing new solar panels. Additionally, metals like silver and aluminium can be collected for recycling.” On top of this, the TNBR PV panel recycling system incorporates a preheating system designed to minimise energy consumption during the pyrolysis process. “The study has effectively identified a substantial reduction in energy usage as a result of this innovative approach,” says Ir. Ts. Noraziah Muda. “By efficiently recovering valuable materials from end-of-life PV panels, we are reducing waste, saving energy, and curbing greenhouse gas emissions,” she says. “Ultimately, it contributes to a more sustainable and eco-friendly solar industry by optimising resources and minimising environmental impact.” In other news, First Solar, a leading provider of photovoltaic solar solutions, recently began operating a solar e-waste recycling facility in Malaysia. The facility is capable of recovering over 90% of glass and semiconductor materials which are then used for developing new solar panels and other products. In November 2022, Singapore Polytechnic launched the country’s first-ever solar photovoltaics recycling line in a pilot project that is targeting a materials recovery rate of 95%. At Arizona State University in the United States, researchers are exploring a new recycling process where silicon cells inside solar panels are separated from their surrounding components using a hot steel blade. A chemical concoction is then used to extract silver, tin, copper and lead from the cells, leaving silicon behind. The team behind this hopes to further refine the recovery process which could soon result in a recycling plant capable of processing around 100 thousand panels a year. Circular Economy is the Goal The recent global energy crisis and the ever-growing impacts of climate change have triggered an unprecedented momentum behind renewable energy. Global solar capacity is expected to triple over the 2022 – 2027 period. Meeting this growth will require massive amounts of raw materials such as silicon, silver, aluminium and copper. Without robust solar panel recycling and waste management infrastructures in place, a significant amount of valuable materials will be lost and improper disposal of solar panels could potentially harm the environment. With a little planning ahead, however, we can effectively address these challenges and ensure the long-term sustainability of solar energy. Firstly, by extending the life cycle of solar panels through advancements in technology, design and maintenance would significantly reduce the frequency of replacements. On top of this, establishing a circular economy that prioritises recycling, refurbishing and repurposing valuable materials from end-of-life panels can further minimise resource wastage and reduce the strain on the environment. As recycling technologies become more efficient and widespread, further cost reductions may occur. “Further into the cycle, this process also creates jobs, fosters innovation, aligns with regulations, promotes sustainability awareness, and encourages responsible end-of-life panel disposal”, explained Noraziah. This effective use of resources to minimise waste as well as innovating for efficiency in solar technology could take us a long way towards the end goal of creating a truly sustainable and clean solar energy economy. We Need to Get Ahead The hard facts around solar waste do not make solar energy any less a powerful solution to our sustainable energy future. However, with 8 million of tonnes of solar panels expected to be decommissioned by 2030, time is one element we should not waste. Fortunately, taking a good look at the concerns and acting now to mitigate them can unlock even more of solar energy’s potential than ever before. Here is where governments can step in – by mandating proper recycling and reuse practices for the renewables economy, along with industry innovation and investment, a holistic lifecycle for solar can be created. In the end, we know that solar energy will pave the way to a green future for all. Considering this, tackling the solar waste challenge is not just a responsibility, but also an opportunity to elevate sustainability, drive innovation, and reshape the clean energy narrative for the better.