Dead solar panels are about to become much more valuable

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In the coming years, recyclers will hopefully be able to extract billions of dollars worth of material from discarded solar panels, according to new analysis released this week. This should reduce bottlenecks in the solar panel supply chain while making the panels themselves more sustainable.

Currently, most dead solar panels in the United States are simply shredded or thrown in a landfill. The economy is simply not in favor of recycling. The value you can get from a salvaged panel has not been enough to offset the cost of transporting and recycling it. That’s about to change, according to recent analysis by research firm Rystad Energy.

Rystad expects the value of recyclable solar panel materials to grow exponentially over the next few years, reaching $2.7 billion in 2030 from just $170 million this year. It is thanks to a growing demand for solar energy coupled with a anticipated pinching in the materials needed to manufacture the panels. Advances in technology are also making it easier to extract more valuable materials from old panels, making recycling more cost effective.

Currently, solar energy represents just over 3% of the global electricity mix. But global energy systems are at the start of a radical metamorphosis to bring more renewables online. To keep the harmful effects of climate change at a more manageable level, the Paris climate agreement commits countries to work together to stop releasing greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels over the next decades. To achieve this goal, solar energy could represent more than 40% of the world’s energy supply. It also helps that solar panels have become super affordable, becoming a cheaper source of electricity than coal or gas in most countries around the world.

Still, there are some clouds ahead in the otherwise sunny forecast for solar power. To build more solar panels, more materials are needed. Currently, the mining and processing of these materials is concentrated in a handful of countries. This has left the solar supply chain vulnerable to disruption and prone to abuse. The nonprofit Business & Human Rights Resource Center has documented human rights abuses during the extraction of materials used in solar panels. And the polysilicon used in solar panels is made through an energy-intensive process involving forced labor. These revelations have led to sanctions on certain solar products made in China.

Recycling will play a role in diversifying these supply chains. It could also decrease the impact of mining on the environment and on the health of workers and surrounding communities.

In the future, more of the materials used to make new solar panels will likely come from redesigned panels. According to Rystad, recovered silver, polysilicon, copper and aluminum can fetch the most money in the recycling market. Unfortunately, today, silver and solar-grade silicon are generally not separated with current recycling methods. It is often chipped along with the rest of the panel and sold as crushed glass. Fortunately, recycling may soon become more sophisticated, thanks to new research on how to recover the most valuable elements inside photovoltaic panels.

Solar started to take off in the 2000s, and with a lifespan of around 25 years, we are just approaching the first big wave of discarded solar panels. If handled properly, this waste could become a treasure.

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