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Recycling is coming to the solar industry

As the solar energy industry continues to grow, companies are beginning to focus on end-of-life and recycling -- a critical step to ensure that the solar boom doesn't come with a planet-busting waste stream.

Solar panels have become much more affordable and are now a cheaper source of electricity than coal or gas in most parts of the globe and manufacturing continues to grow. But many of the first panels installed at sites around the world are now reaching the end of their 25 year lifespan so tackling the disposal problem is becoming more of an issue.

According to a new analysis published this week by the energy research and business intelligence company Rystad Energy, the demand for recycled solar PV panel components is expected to skyrocket in the coming years.

Coupled with imminent large-scale disposal and thus, an installation surge during an already growing demand cycle, analysts are predicting a supply bottleneck according to a report in The Verge.

Rystand’s analysis shows that by 2030 recycled PV panel materials will be worth more than $2.7 billion up from only $170 million this year. The trend will move faster than the sun’s revolutions, accelerating to a projected value of $80 billion by 2050.

Right now, most solar panels in the US get shredded and/or ditched in a landfill. Despite past efforts to fix this, such as a project by the Department of Energy, the economics have not been in recycling’s favor.

Yet, as Rystad Energy predicts, that won’t be the case for much longer. Soon, thanks to technological advancements, recyclers will be able to mine billions of dollars worth of materials from discarded solar panels.

Currently solar only accounts for 3 percent of global electricity. However, because the Paris climate accord commits countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels over the next few decades, solar could account for 40 percent by 2050 in order to reach the ultimate goal: net-zero.

But how will materials be recycled? According to Rystad, the first step is disassembly. The solar panel’s aluminum frame and junction box are taken off, ground into pieces, and sorted by material. The recovery rate is enhanced when materials are ground up even finer, as done by one Japan-based NPC. As the market expands, new companies are emerging such as the US-based SolarCycle.

Still, the forecast isn’t all sunshine. Mining and processing of recycled materials are needed to reuse them, a practice that is concentrated in only a few countries, leaving the global solar supply chain vulnerable to disruptions and labor abuse.

The nonprofit Business & Human Rights Resource Center has documented a series of human rights abuses during the mining of materials used in solar panels.

These issues are most associated with environmental and health impacts such as air and water pollution, as well as infringing on indigenous people's rights and access to water in places like Madagascar and New Caledonia, hotspots for nickel mining.

Challenges don’t end there. Polysilicon, a material used in solar panels, is made through an energy-intensive process and has been tied to forced labor, leading to sanctions on solar products made in China for example.

As The Verge reports, recycling may be one way to diversify supply chains, lessening the toll mining takes on the environment, worker health, and neighboring communities.

As recycled materials become a prominent ingredient in creating new solar panels, Rystad reports that recovered silver, polysilicon, copper, and aluminum will be the most valuable in the recycling market. While silver and solar-grade silicon aren’t separated out using today’s recycling methods, new research highlights ways this could change. With proper regulations, recycling could stop the sun from setting on the solar panel market.

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