As the solar industry grows, so do concerns about the environmental impact of solar PV technology over its entire life span. The main worry is that if these solar PV modules aren’t being properly recycled, they’re going to contribute to the world’s waste and pollution levels at the end of their lives, thus negating much of the positive impact that they have had on climate change. With most solar panels having a predicted minimum life span of 25 years, this could prove to be a serious issue soon unless panels are recycled effectively.
Many companies are working on novel ways to recycle panels, and breakthroughs are happening all the time. For example, PV Cycle announced a 6% improvement for silicon-based module recycling in February, and the company has now achieved a 96% recycling rate in real-world performance.
Ultimately, the most effective solution will be to apportion more of the responsibility to panel manufacturers to make their products easier to recycle. Currently, materials such as carbon fiber, silver, silicon and tin are used in the production of solar PV modules, all of which are difficult and expensive to recycle. Minimizing their use in the industry will be a big step toward reducing the waste produced by used-up PV modules and making solar an entirely green form of energy, which is the ultimate aim of the renewable energy sector.
Although PV panel manufacturers and their stakeholders should make efforts to become as environmentally conscious as possible, it’s unfair to expect current producers to have to foot the entire costs associated with these breakthroughs. The manufacturers of PV modules run businesses, and they have to balance the money they spend on making their products more eco-friendly with their own bottom lines. This is where the government should step in and provide incentives for solar manufacturers to reduce the carbon footprint of their products over their full life span.
Since 2012, solar panels have been included in the European Commission’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, which means that at the end of a panel’s life, all electrical equipment must legally be disposed of responsibly. The Battery Directive 2006/66/EC will also affect the PV industry with the current movement toward battery storage and self-consumption. These European directives are designed to increase responsibility for manufacturers and governments over time, but more could be done on a national level to encourage the use of more environmentally friendly ingredients for solar modules in the production process.
To this end, a government could incentivize PV manufacturers to make their products more eco-friendly by putting a stricter tax on raw carbon. It is currently cheaper to use raw carbon than its recycled counterpart, even though producing usable raw carbon is worse for the environment. Increasing the price of raw carbon through taxation would make recycled carbon more economically competitive, incentivizing PV manufacturers to recycle it at the end of their modules’ life span.
Alongside their responsibility to produce the most environmentally friendly products possible, solar PV manufacturers will also need to innovate to secure their future in the market. As green credentials are obviously such an important part of the renewable energy industry, companies that don’t innovate will quickly be left behind, as their competitors are sure to focus their marketing on their smaller carbon footprint.
Many major solar PV manufacturers already take their responsibility toward sustainability and protection of the environment very seriously and focus a lot of their time on improving the environmental credentials of their products.
For example, Trina Solar is committed to monitoring emissions and its carbon footprint, with the aim of reducing this year-over-year. The company’s efforts have been recognized by third-party institutes including BSI and SVTC, and the firm has ongoing partnerships with the UN Environment Program and Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The company’s official certifications include ISO 14001 for Environmental Management and ISO 14046 for GHG Emissions Reporting.
Such open and transparent information about environmental issues, improvement steps and results can help a company’s position in the market and place it above competition in terms of desirable products that are fit for the future.
Another positive development is that as some manufacturers make higher-output products with the same volume of materials, the carbon footprint and material impact of the kilowatt-hours produced by photovoltaics are rapidly improving.
For solar PV technology to truly be the solution to today’s environmental issues, the materials used to produce panels will need to be 100% recyclable. This innovation will need to come from within the solar industry, so manufacturers need to take part of the responsibility for this, and governments also need to put incentives in place to encourage them to reinvest their profits into new innovations.
Ian Draisey is managing director of U.K.-based PV wholesaler BayWa r.e. Solar Systems Ltd.