Solar panels provide green energy and lower carbon emissions worldwide, but their limited lifespan of up to 25 years is a serious environmental problem. The first generation of domestic solar panels is now reaching the end of its life, and by 2050 more than 200 million tonnes of solar panels will be retired. Despite this, recycling facilities are almost non-existent.
Up to the present, more than 2.5 billion solar panels have been installed around the world, generating energy in excess of one Terawatt. Representatives of the RESPO WEEE Association warn that many of these will be out of use in the next few years and that there is no specialised infrastructure for dismantling and recycling them. Energy experts are therefore calling on governments to act quickly to prevent a possible global environmental catastrophe.
“When they come out of use, solar panels are considered waste electrical and electronic equipment, but recycling them requires a completely different process from the one implemented so far for TVs, fridges, washing machines or small waste.
The first generation of domestic solar panels is now reaching the end of its life, requiring immediate action. By 2030, there will be 4 million tonnes of these panels broken or obsolete worldwide, and there is currently little talk of dedicated recycling plants.
In recent years, all over the world, and in Romania as well, there has been an accelerated growth in the installation of photovoltaic panels. In our country, demand in 2022 alone has quadrupled in the residential and commercial sectors, after a threefold increase in 2021, due to higher energy prices. This upward trend will continue from now on, especially as only 6% of the energy currently used in EU countries comes from solar power. But the authorities are not thinking enough about the future and what we will do with these panels once they are out of use,” says Cristian Pocol, President of the RESPO DEEE Association (www.respo.ro).In recent years, all over the world, and in Romania as well, there has been an accelerated growth in the installation of photovoltaic panels. In our country, demand in 2022 alone has quadrupled in the residential and commercial sectors, after a threefold increase in 2021, due to higher energy prices. This upward trend will continue from now on, especially as only 6% of the energy currently used in EU countries comes from solar power. But the authorities are not thinking enough about the future and what we will do with these panels once they are out of use,” says Cristian Pocol, President of the RESPO DEEE Association (respo.ro).
World’s first solar panel recycling plant to launch in France
Small steps are being taken at European level to address this problem. The world’s first factory dedicated to recycling photovoltaic panels will open at the end of June in Grenoble, France. The factory aims to extract and reuse up to 99% of the components of a photovoltaic panel. In addition to recycling front glass and aluminium scrap, the factory has the capacity to recover precious materials such as silver and copper, which are more difficult to extract. These valuable resources can then be recycled and reused to create more efficient solar units.
“The launch of this factory is good and encouraging news and the model should be replicated and applied in all countries around the world in the near future. More than 60% of the value of a photovoltaic panel is contained in just 3% of its weight, and this is due to the valuable materials it contains such as copper, silicon and silver. Recovery technology is evolving and experts estimate that in the near future, three-quarters of the materials needed for new solar panels, including silver, can be recovered from retired PV units and recycled, speeding up production of new panels. Currently, there is an acute shortage of silver worldwide to meet the production demand for millions of solar panels needed in the transition away from fossil fuels,” says Cristian Pocol, President of RESPO DEEE Association.
In Romania, the first steps to build a factory specialised in recycling photovoltaic panels are only now being taken. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Energy announced plans to build such a plant, with funding provided by the NRRP (the National Recovery and Resilience Plan).
How much will we earn if we recycle photovoltaic panels?
According to the RESPO DEEE Association, if photovoltaic panels were recycled correctly, an estimated USD 450 million worth of material would be recycled by 2030. That would yield 60 million new solar PV panels from recycled materials and an additional 18-gigawatt hours of capacity from recycled panels.
In the same situation, it is estimated that $15 billion worth of materials would be recycled by 2050. It would result in 2 billion new solar photovoltaic panels from recycled materials and an additional 630-gigawatt hours of capacity from recycled panels.
About RESPO DEEE Association
The Respo DEEE Association is dedicated to an efficient WEEE collection and recycling process that ensures quality, reliability and technological progress at high standards. The services exist to create an efficient system of collection, logistics, treatment and recovery of WEEE, all with the aim of minimising waste and environmental impact.
The RESPO WEEE Association offers free pick-up and transport of this waste directly from your home or company premises. People need to order the right containers, such as the RESPO box or bins, free of charge online at respo.ro or by calling the freephone number 0800 800 219, and fill them with the waste they want to recycle. When they are ready, they call the same number and a RESPO collector will come and collect the waste free of charge and take it to the centres where it will be recycled properly.