As companies rush to make solar panels recyclable -- to blunt criticism of the environmental impact of solar power -- a Tawainese research group has developed a solar panel they say is 96% recyclable.
The achievement is well-timed as demand for renewable power is set to explode -- especially in the United States, where opponents of renewable energy development have used the manufacturing footprint of solar panels as an argument against their deployment.
In the first half of this year, residential solar saw its largest quarter in U.S. history. Roughly 39% of all new electricity-generating capacity added in the country was solar, accounting for 4.6 gigawatts (GW) of capacity, enough to power 23 million homes.
Today’s explosion in solar power adoption is a direct result of falling prices, which have been dropping since the first major boom in 2011. Our world is fast approaching the million gigawatt solar mark, with about 850 GW of installed solar energy capacity in operation globally in 2021.
However, because solar panels have a lifespan of 30-35 years, after the next three decades, a landslide of electronic waste could plunge into our landfills.
The Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), a Taiwan-based applied technology research institute, is working toward a future of circular solar. Partnering with Tawainese panel manufacturer, United Renewable Energy (URE), the two created a solar panel they say is 96% recyclable.
Aside from aiming to avoid the impending landslide of solar waste, the company is also aiming to capitalize on a silver lining: an unprecedented economic opportunity.
As the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates, by 2050, the U.S. could have between 7.5 and 10 million tons of PV waste. This is a sliver of the 78 million tons of raw materials and other valuable components that IRENA says will be unleashed onto the world by 2050.
If these recycled and repurposed solar panel materials are injected back into the economy, it could be worth more than $15 billion.
ITRI builds on this estimate, predicting that the value of retired solar panels will increasingly rise, bringing this number to $18 billion and later, to $74 billion per a GW, creating a new circular economy for the solar industry.
Still, this economic value is only possible if we make solar panels recyclable. At present, less than 10% of American solar panels are recycled, with no federal regulation regarding the matter.
According to ITRI and URE, that can change. The two claim their solar PV panel is easier to recycle and has minimal waste, primarily because it's so easy to assemble. 96% of the materials can be recovered, including all of the solar cells and encapsulation glass.
It's an advancement that could reduce carbon emissions of the PV products by 50% or more, according to IRTI’s Vice President, Alex Y.M. Peng. “This can strengthen the competitiveness of the solar energy industry to reach the net zero goals by 2050,” he said in a statement.
IRTI and URE say that their model improves on the traditional PV structure, which has tightly bonded materials stacked on top of each other, complicating the recycling process. According to the two entities, their model simplifies the structure, making it so that, with heat, the bi-layers can be easily disassembled and repurposed.
Moreover, commercial-use PV modules typically release the glass and silicone parts of panels as pellets. The joint-team says that their model allows them to be recovered whole, enabling a higher value of intact solar wafers.
“The designed low-temperature thermal process gradually decomposes the bi-layer film,” IRTI’s R&D team told PV Magazine. “By the time the solar modules become obsolete, the module can be easily dismantled into various parts.”
IRTI and URE aren’t the only ones on the quest to recycle solar panels..
While all of First Solar’s materials do not go directly back into solar panels, and instead can be recycled into semiconductors for new panels, glass for bottles and laminate for rubber mats and bicycle handles, the model aptly integrates solar panels into the circular economy market.
Japan-based company, Itochu also recently announced a plan for panel recycling. Partnering with France’s Rosi Solar, which develops tech to recover and recycle high-purity silver, copper and silicon from solar modules, the alliance will also help Itochu to bring its recycling business to and beyond Japen. Rosi Solar, plans to open its commercial recycling plant in France by 2023.
These companies are jumping on the recycled solar bandwagon early. As found by a December market report, the global solar panel recycling market is expected to reach $380.8 million by 2027, with large market rises on almost every continent. The coming years will show if the technology is scaled to reach this million dollar level.