Solar Panels: An Ecological Disaster Waiting to Happen? – BBC News

  • By Daniel Gordon
  • Podcast The Climate Question, BBC Sounds

image source, Laurent Julliand

While being promoted worldwide as a crucial weapon for reducing carbon emissions, solar panels have a lifespan of up to 25 years.

Experts say that billions of panels will eventually all have to be disposed of and replaced.

“The world has more than a terawatt of solar capacity installed. 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,” says dr. Rong Deng, an expert in solar panel recycling at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

According to the British government, there are tens of millions of solar panels in the UK. But the specialized infrastructure to scrap and recycle them is lacking.

Energy experts are calling for urgent government action to prevent a looming global environmental disaster.

“By 2050 it will be a mountain of waste, unless we start recycling chains now,” says Ute Collier, deputy director of the International Renewable Energy Agency.

“We’re making more and more solar panels – which is great – but how are we going to deal with waste?” she asks.

It is hoped that an important step will be taken at the end of June, when the first factory in the world dedicated to the complete recycling of solar panels will officially open in France.

ROSI, the solar energy recycling company that owns the plant in the Alpine city of Grenoble, hopes to be able to extract and reuse 99% of the components of a unit.

In addition to recycling the glass fronts and aluminum frames, the new factory can recover almost all of the precious materials contained within the panels, such as silver and copper, which are typically some of the hardest materials to extract.

These rare materials can later be recycled and reused to make new, more powerful solar units.

Image caption,

Silver fragments recovered from solar panels, at the ROSI plant in Grenoble

Conventional methods of recycling solar panels recover most of the aluminum and glass, but ROSI says glass, in particular, is of relatively low quality.

The glass recovered by these methods can be used to make tiles, or in sandblasting – it can even be mixed with other materials to make asphalt – but cannot be used in applications where high quality glass is required, such as the production of new panels. solar.

Boom period

The new ROSI plant will open during a boom period for solar panel installations.

Global solar power generation capacity grew by 22% in 2021. Around 13,000 solar photovoltaic (PV) panels are installed in the UK each month, mostly on the roofs of private homes.

In many cases, solar units become relatively uneconomical before reaching the end of their expected life. New, more efficient designs evolve at regular intervals, meaning it can prove cheaper to replace solar panels that are only 10 or 15 years old with upgraded versions.

If current growth trends are sustained, Collier says, the volume of scrap solar panels could be enormous.

“By 2030, we think we will have four million tons [of scrap] – which is still manageable – but by 2050 we could end up with more than 200 million tonnes globally.”

To put that into perspective, the world currently produces a total of 400 million tons of plastic each year.

The reason there are so few solar panel recycling facilities is because until recently there wasn’t a lot of waste to process and reuse.

The first generation of domestic solar panels is only now reaching the end of its useful life. With those units now nearing retirement, experts say urgent action is needed.

“Now is the time to think about it,” says Ms. Collier.

France is already a leader among European nations when it comes to PV waste treatment, says Nicolas Defrenne. His organization, Soren, collaborates with ROSI and other companies, coordinating the decommissioning of solar panels throughout France.

“The biggest [we decommissioned] it took three months,” recalls Defrenne.

His team at Soren has experimented with different ways of recycling what they collect: “We’re throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.”

image source, Laurent Julliand

Image caption,

Solar panels are delaminated to recover valuable materials

In ROSI’s high-tech factory in Grenoble, the solar panels are painstakingly disassembled to recover the precious materials inside, such as copper, silicon and silver.

Each solar panel contains only tiny fragments of these precious materials, and those fragments are so intertwined with other components that, until now, it has not been economically viable to separate them.

But because they’re so valuable, efficiently mining those precious materials could be a game-changer, says Defrenne.

“Over 60% of the value is contained in 3% of the weight of the solar panels,” he says.

Soren’s team hopes that, in the future, nearly three-quarters of the materials needed to make new solar panels, including silver, can be salvaged from disused PV units and recycled to speed up the production of new panels.

There isn’t currently enough silver available to build the millions of solar panels that will be needed in the transition from fossil fuels, says Defrenne: “You can see where there’s a bottleneck in manufacturing, it’s silver.”

image source, Laurent Julliand

Image caption,

A truck loaded with solar panels

Meanwhile British scientists have been trying to develop a technology similar to ROSI.

Last year, researchers at the University of Leicester announced they had discovered how to extract silver from photovoltaic units using a form of saline solution.

But so far, ROSI is the only company in its field to have taken its operations to industrial levels.

Also, the technology is expensive. In Europe, importers or manufacturers of solar panels are responsible for their disposal when they become consumable. And many prefer to crush or shred their waste, which is much cheaper.

Defrenne acknowledges that the intensive recycling of solar panels is still in its infancy. Last year, Soren and its partners recycled just under 4,000 tons of French solar panels.

But there is the potential to do much more. And he is making it his mission.

“The weight of all new solar panels sold last year in France was 232,000 tons, so when they wear out in 20 years, that’s how much I’ll need to collect each year.

“When that happens, my personal goal is to ensure that France becomes the world’s technology leader.”

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