A near future looms when mountains of discarded solar panels amass in landfills. Once employed to reduce carbon footprints, they soon will pose environmental challenges and economic opportunities.
As solar panels installed in the early 2000s approach the ends of their 25- to 30-year lifespans, a pressing issue emerges. What becomes of these panels once they’re no longer functional?
The question has fueled a surge in the solar panel recycling market, often described as the next “Green Gold Rush.” BCC Research LLC projects the market will experience a compound annual growth rate of 36.8% through 2028, reaching a valuation of $1.7 billion.
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The Situation: Massive Surge in Retired Solar Panels
An influx of retired solar panels presents a complex and multifaceted issue. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that by 2050, the world could see 78 million metric tons of solar panel waste.
“The world has installed more than one terawatt of solar capacity,” University of New South Wales in Australia’s Dr. Rong Deng, an expert in solar panel recycling, told the BBC. “Ordinary solar panels have a capacity of about 400W, so if you count both rooftops and solar farms, there could be as many as 2.5 billion solar panels.”
Hazardous to the environment, the discarded solar panels also present economic opportunities. The International Energy Agency claims the recovered materials’ value could exceed $15 billion.
Yet, results thus far show the vast majority of retired solar panels are not recycled, instead accumulating in landfills. MIT Technology Review estimates fewer than 10% of decommissioned solar panels in the United States get recycled.
Between 2030 and 2060, roughly 9.8 million metric tons of solar panel waste will accumulate, according to a 2019 study published in Renewable Energy.
It’s no wonder why more steps aren’t taken to recycle retired solar panels. According to the Harvard Business Review, it costs between $20 and $30 to recycle one panel. Sending that same panel to a landfill would cost a mere $1 to $2.
The Problem: Outdated Solar Panels and Environmental Concerns
Solar panels are marvels of renewable energy technology, but they come with a downside.
They contain valuable materials like silicon. Solar panels, however, also house components that can be harmful if not managed at the end of their lifecycle.
Older panels, for example, may contain hazardous materials like cadmium or lead. Improper disposal of solar panels can result in environmental degradation, contaminating soil and water supplies, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
The risks extend beyond mere contamination. Discarded solar panels pose fire hazards, especially when improperly stored in landfills.
The combination of flammable materials like ethylene-vinyl acetate and electrical components create conditions ripe for combustion, as noted in the journal Materials (Basel).
Such fires pose immediate dangers, releasing toxic fumes that can harm both humans and wildlife.
Landfills are the default destination for many types of waste. Yet, they are ill-equipped to handle the complexities of solar panel disposal. The panels deteriorate, releasing harmful substances into the environment.
As a result, the need for specialized recycling methods arises. Effective strategies must prevent waste and harness valuable materials like copper and silver.
Recycling alone will not eliminate the risks associated with retired solar panels. If not safely recycled, the EPA notes a potential for leaching antimony, a lesser-known toxic material found in some solar panels. When exposed to the elements, antimony can seep into the ground, posing a risk to aquatic life.
Given these multifaceted challenges, efficient and safe recycling methods are a matter of both environmental stewardship and public safety.
The Opportunity: Job and Business Prospects
The urgent need for solar panel recycling has its benefits. It has catalyzed many job and business opportunities, making it a focal point for economic growth.
Research and development roles abound. Scientists and engineers must create more efficient and environmentally-friendly solar panel recycling methods.
Operational roles in recycling plants also are rising, and positions range from technicians to logistics coordinators.
The opportunities don’t stop at the technical level. Nations worldwide continue to enact waste management regulations specific to solar panels. The movements drive the demand for regulatory, compliance and legal professionals.
Such roles are critical for ensuring recycling operations meet government standards. They also are necessary for navigating the complex legal landscape surrounding waste management.
The Financial Incentives: Valuable Raw Materials
The financial prospects in the solar panel recycling industry are equally compelling. In fact, they ultimately could be the driving force in the process’s mass adoption.
One of the most lucrative opportunities lies in extracting nano-silicon from defunct panels.
According to a BCC Research press release, just six retired solar panels can yield 1 kilogram of nano-silicon at a market value of about $45,000 per kilogram.
Nano-silicon is not the only valuable material that can be reclaimed. Copper, silver and aluminum also are present in solar panels and can be extracted for reuse.
A Yale School of the Environment report indicates the value of raw materials in discarded solar panels could reach $15 billion by 2050. The projection offers a strong financial incentive to entrepreneurs and investors considering the solar panel recycling market.
Solar Panel Recycling Solutions on the Horizon
Several groundbreaking solutions have moved to the forefront in the face of mounting challenges associated with solar panel waste.
The Washington Post reports a novel microwave technology can efficiently extract valuable materials like copper and silver from old panels. The technology reduces waste and minimizes the energy required for the extraction process.
The journal, “Resources, Conservation and Recycling,” presents another promising approach. Advanced optical sorting techniques accurately identify and separate materials within the solar panels, streamlining the recycling process and reducing the environmental footprint.
Likewise, Chemical & Engineering News reports the development of chemical processes that neutralize hazardous materials like cadmium and lead. The process prevents them from contaminating the environment.
The Renewable Energy Paradox
Solar panels are pivotal in the renewable energy movement and the charge to reduce carbon footprints. They also hold a prominent position in what’s becoming known as the renewable energy paradox.
Renewable energy technologies designed to reduce emissions are also hazardous to the environment.
As millions of solar panels reach retirement age, it’s pertinent to ask the right questions and prioritize safe recycling solutions.
After all, solar panels currently account for only about 4.5% of the world’s energy production. What will happen when that adoption doubles, quadruples or more in the near future? What will happen when the next generation of solar panels is retired?