The global solar photovoltaic (PV) boom currently under way will represent a significant untapped business opportunity as decommissioned solar panels enter the waste stream in the years ahead, according to a new report released by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency’s Photovoltaic Power Systems Program (IEA-PVPS).
The report, titled “End-of-Life Management: Solar Photovoltaic Panels,” offers a projection of PV panel waste volumes to 2050 and highlights that recycling or repurposing solar PV panels at the end of their roughly 30-year lifetime can unlock a large stock of raw materials and other valuable components.
The report estimates that PV panel waste, consisting mostly of glass, could total 78 million tonnes globally by 2050. If fully injected back into the economy, the value of the recovered material could exceed $15 billion by 2050. The report says 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.
“Global installed PV capacity reached 222 GW at the end of 2015 and is expected to further rise to 4,500 GW by 2050. With this tremendous capacity growth will come an increase in waste associated with the sector,” comments IRENA Director-General Adnan Z. Amin. “This brings about new business opportunities to ‘close the loop’ for solar PV panels at the end of their lifetime. To seize these opportunities, however, preparations for the surge in end-of-life material should begin now.”
“With the right policies and enabling frameworks in place, new industries that recycle and repurpose old solar PV panels will drive considerable economic value creation and will be an important element in the world’s transition to a sustainable energy future,” adds Amin.
The report suggests that addressing growing solar PV waste – and spurring the establishment of an industry to handle it – would require 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.
“Experience with electronic waste tells us that developing technological and regulatory systems for efficient, effective and affordable end-of-life management requires long lead times,” explains Stefan Nowak, chairman of IEA-PVPS. “This timely report can be used by public- and private-sector institutions to anchor the necessary investments in technology and policy research and development and supporting analyses to unlock the significant recoverable value in end-of-life panels.
“Responsible life-cycle management is an imperative for all PV technologies – the socioeconomic and environmental benefits which can potentially be unlocked through end-of-life processes and policies for this waste stream in the future should be seen as an opportunity today to start extending the photovoltaic value chain,” adds Nowak.
The report notes that PV panels fall under the classification of “general waste” in most countries, but the European Union (EU) was the first to adopt PV-specific waste regulations, which include PV-specific collection, recovery and recycling targets. The EU’s directive requires all panel producers that supply PV panels to the EU market (wherever they may be based) to finance the costs of collecting and recycling end-of-life PV panels put on the market in Europe.
The full report is available here.