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Building capacity for end-of-life solar panel recycling

By 24th February 2017 Blog, Sustainability No Comments

Since 2010, the number of solar PV installations on homes has risen dramatically. Will we have sufficient capacity for end-of-life solar panel recycling?

According to government figures, there were 28,454 solar PV installations of below 4 kW installed in 2010. If, as is often predicted, the life expectancy of these solar panels is 20 years, it means that in 13 years from now, we could be seeing the first significant replacement of domestic solar modules starting in the UK.

The European solar PV industry has established a voluntary take-back scheme called PV Cycle. Its goal is to collect a minimum of 65% of PV modules installed in Europe since 1990, and to recycle 85% of waste, and it has a presence in the UK.

Based on those goals, it means that from the end of December 2030, PV Cycle could expect to collect panels from 18,554 of those 2010 installations. At about 16 per 4 kW installation, that’s 296,864 panels.

PV panels weigh-in at about 15 kg per square metre, with a 4 kW system typically taking up 28 square metres of roof space.

The stellar annual growth we’ve seen in domestic solar PV installations since 2010 means that the number of end-of-life installations could then be expected to swell considerably year-on-year. If PV Cycle achieves its 65% take-back goal, it would look something like this:

2030: 18,544 installations and 296,854 panels at 7,788 tonnes

2031: 147,651 installations and 2,362,416 panels at 62,013 tonnes

2032: 251,706 installations and 4,027,296 panels at 105,716 tonnes

2033: 314,969 installations and 5,039,504 panels 132,286 tonnes

2034: 400,765 installations and 6,412,240 panels 168,321 tonnes

2035: 514,762 installations and 8,236,192 panels 216,200 tonnes

2036: 548,352 installations and 8,773,632 panels 230,307 tonnes

So, between 2030 and 2036, there could be a requirement to collect and recycle 35.1 million PV panels, weighing 911,370 tonnes, from a total of 2,169,929 installations. We think that’s a pretty big ask right now.

If the PV Cycle goal to recycle 85% of the waste is weight-based (as such targets often are) it would mean that 136,705 tonnes of will be disposed of, possibly to landfill.

Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, or WEEE, is already Europe’s fastest growing wastestream and it looks like end-of-life solar panels are going to add to that.

So, can we do it?

It’s a big ask, but the UK waste management and recycling sector has shown time and time again that it is capable of rising to such challenges.

Think fridge recycling, toner cartridges, incinerator fly ash, tyres – in fact, think everything that used to go to landfill but has progressively been banned as a consequence of the EC Landfill Directive 1999.

Similar challenges that have been overcome include finding a way to recycle spent fluorescent lamps that contain small amounts of mercury, Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) televisions and monitors because they contain leaded glass, and, more recently, LCD and LED screens.

So, in essence, yes, we probably can build the end-of-life solar panel recycling capacity and infrastructure needed from 2030 onwards, but that doesn’t mean we can sit on our laurels – it’s something that government and industry need to be considering now in order to make sure we’re ready when it matters, because, once it starts, it will be a continuing requirement if every domestic solar PV installation that reaches the end of its life is replaced with another…

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