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Solar panels have become an essential element of the electric grid and many house roofs due to a 70% price decrease since 2010. To be sure, there are some clouds on the horizon when it comes to this form of renewable energy. Its promising future is threatened by gloomy conditions. In the future, there may be a flood of panels that are on the verge of failing. Since the great majority of panels in the United States aren't recycled, this is a source of worry for many. When their usefulness is over, what happens to the panels? Can they even be recycled? There have been some exciting developments in that area that need our attention. Let's try to get a consensus on this.
I've been meaning to bring up the subject of solar panel recycling for some time now but haven't had the chance. Find out more about my solar panel work here. A recent piece in the LA Times portrayed a bleak image, and many of you have asked me what I think about it. Can solar panels be recycled, and how serious is the issue, exactly? It's true, we can reuse them... But the situation is tricky. I am a strong believer in solar power, but even I can't deny the importance of this problem.
Unlike solar energy, solar panels have a finite lifespan (often between 30 and 40 years). When individuals say "20–25 years," they usually mean the length of time covered by the panel warranty. They have a far longer lifespan than that, but what happens when they finally reach their end of life? Photovoltaic (PV) panels are multi-layer sandwiches comprised of various materials; therefore, the solution is quite involved. Glass and aluminum make up the majority of a PV module's recyclable components, as reported by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). What about the other twenty percent? This varies with the kind of panel being used. Consider silicon-based photovoltaic modules, which account for 90% of the industry. Here, a silver grid sits on a silicon cell. Further, the cell is protected by two layers of ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA). A plastic junction box with copper wire is located at the panel's rear. All of these things can be recycled, but doing so requires a lot of work and expertise. Solar panels are sent to glass recycling facilities, where the aluminum frame, plastic junction box, and copper wiring are all removed by mechanical means. The glass is shredded without separating the two layers, and the resulting powder is sold as cullet for construction and industrial uses.
The worst-case scenario is that the solar panels are destroyed in their current, unaltered state. Yet recyclers don't see this as a worthwhile endeavor. A 60-cell silicon module's recyclable glass, aluminum, and copper are predicted to be worth just $3 in a recent academic article. That's nothing compared to the $25 it may cost to recycle a single panel in the United States. However, the fee to have a module dumped in a landfill is just $28. You can understand now why recycling rates in the US are so low, at about 10%. The module's worth is 60% silicon and 40% silver, so if we could get them back, things would alter dramatically. This requires expensive high-temperature thermal and chemical treatments in addition to the mechanical procedures.
Silicon recovery may not even generate a profit. This is what scientists discovered when they examined the viability of a 2,000-ton-per day recycling facility. It has been determined by experts that the technique would not be financially viable since silicon-based panels, in contrast to thin-film modules, do not include any precious metals. Solar panels have a low market value due to their inherent weakness and the risk of being labeled hazardous waste if a heavy metals leach test fails.This necessitates the employment of a specialist crew, in addition to specific methods of care and packing, as well as dedicated modes of transportation. In addition to the risk of releasing harmful chemicals into the environment, landfill disposal may contaminate soil and groundwater with heavy metals like lead and cadmium. The Los Angeles Times reports that panels are treated by doing things like glass laminate encapsulation (GLE). This treatment prevents heavy metals from leaking out of the panel. The impact of GLE on the leaching potential of lead was studied by simulation and various experiments. To what extent does it work? To the point where it was almost innocuous to the environment, GLE, in one example, decreased lead mobility by a factor of 9. One of the studies nevertheless showed that even GLE wasn't enough to prevent lead from spreading. The Harvard Business Review estimated that the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) of solar panels might double by 2035 due to factors such as solar panel disposal and panels being retired early in favor of newer, more efficient panels. Normally I would say that's too pushy, but we're in an unknown area here. The lack of a national recycling mandate is also problematic. In reality, just five states have established laws for the eventual disposal of solar panels. We need to discover a method to recycle more before the solar waste tsunami hits. The pace at which we must move in order to keep up with it demands prompt action. By 2050, there may be as much as 80 million metric tons of used solar panels lying around, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). That seems like enough trash to block out the light for good. Mr. Burns could agree with you on that.
Leading by example
It's obvious that recycling solar panels hasn't taken off yet. Yet this is not the place to wallow in pessimism. We can learn from the past, when we successfully resolved comparable issues. For instance, consider the widespread use of lead acid batteries (LAB). Between 2014 and 2018, the United States had a 99% LAB recycling rate, according to research conducted by the Battery Council International (BCI). How long did it take for LABs to become the most recycled product in the United States? On average, we recycled around 70% of LABs in 1985, as reported by the EPA. Since the price of lead was so low at the time, recycling LABs was not a lucrative endeavor. There isn't a huge amount of variation from the present. It was only after strategic legislation was enacted that things started to pick up speed.
An essential national regulatory force was the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Lead was one of many "metals of concern" included in a 1976 United States statute. We didn't see the effects for another decade or more. Toxic LABs were prohibited from landfills in a number of states in the early 1990s. In addition, several municipalities have enacted recycling supply chain development regulations. To begin, customers were mandated to return their used LABs to participating stores or be charged a deposit for each new battery they purchased. Furthermore, a take-back program required factories to purchase refurbished LABs from stores.This was useful since it meant that recycling LABs could still make a profit despite the drop in lead prices. These measures were effective, too. With its implementation, Rhode Island was able to boost its LAB recycling rate by as much as 40% within a year, ultimately reaching a staggering 95% by 1990. While it was an exception at the time, BCI reports that in 2011, the United States as a whole achieved a nationwide recycling rate of 99 percent.
The recycling rate of LABs has been greatly accelerated throughout the years by their comparatively straightforward chemistry and well-established technologies, such as pyrometallurgical smelting. However, the standard LAB recycling technique is neither safe nor environmentally friendly, since it uses a great deal of energy and emits lead and greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere. This is why scientists have been working on developing a greener way for the past decade. Indeed, the laboratory has already produced an intriguing result. ACE Green Recycling has developed a LABs recycling process that uses electricity instead of the typical smelting method, which requires temperatures exceeding 1,000 °C. Construction on their first facility will begin in Texas very soon, with operations expected to begin by the end of 2023.When operating at full capacity, it is anticipated that more than 5 million LABs will be recycled, preventing 50,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. It's ironic that the startup is considering installing solar panels to power the entire building. My question is whether or not they plan to reuse their knowledge to advocate for the reuse of PV modules.
Some rays of sunshine
The LABs serve as an illustration of how forward-thinking legislation may kick-start recycling initiatives. From a technical standpoint, it is obvious that the solar panel scenario is more complicated. However, efforts are being made by academics, businesses, and authorities to reduce expenses relative to income. Recovering the higher-value elements like silicon and silver is a significant economic problem. Hydrofluoric acid, which is both poisonous and corrosive, is now used in the industry as an etching agent for pure silicon in solar cells. In November last year, scientists from India developed a method that uses sodium hydroxide, nitric acid, and phosphoric acid, making it both safer and cheaper to produce. Using a three-stage sequential process, researchers were able to not only extract 99.998% pure silicon but also recover silver. They concluded that incorporating their method into the recycling process of a 1-kg solar cell would result in a profit of around $185.
A month later, researchers from Arizona State University (ASU), the startup TG businesses, and the energy company First Solar were awarded $485,000 by the Department of Energy (DOE) to create a technology that recovers high-purity silicon and silver from PV cells. What, then, is the bright side of that cloud? To begin, TG firms claim that they've developed a heat treatment that safely and cleanly removes the EVA coating from solar cells without causing any damage to or contamination of the cells themselves. Their oven would not reach temperatures of more than 500 degrees Celsius, unlike traditional furnaces, and thus no iron or copper would be leached into the solar cell during production. After that, things go hazy because they utilize a proprietary blend of ingredients to separate the silicon and silver. Their CEO has said that they will use milder chemicals that can be continuously recycled. However, a specialist in the field has warned that the firm is likely to experience material losses while peeling silicon cells from their polymeric covering. It's just a matter of time until we can verify their claims. There will be a pilot facility up and running by that time, with a goal of recycling 100,000 solar panels annually.
Legislators, as they did with lead acid batteries, need to do their share to power solar recycling in addition to research and private sector initiatives. From 2014 forward, solar panels have been considered electronic trash in Europe. The term "extended producer responsibility" was initially specified in the Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulation, or WEEE. 32 In a nutshell, the rule requires companies producing solar panels to pay for the eventual recycling of their goods. In addition, 80 percent of PV panel components must be recycled. The strategy has opened up new possibilities in the European Union's recycling sector. For example, PV Cycle created a recycling scheme to aid factories in meeting their WEEE responsibilities. The EU-backed firm recycled approximately 95% of solar module material in France in February 2020, well above the minimum requirement set by WEEE. They were able to accomplish this remarkable feat by collaborating with Veolia, which in 2018 opened Europe's first factory dedicated to recycling solar panels. Veolia uses robots to carefully disassemble solar sandwich modules in order to salvage valuable materials like silicon and silver.
In the United States, things are very different. When compared to the rest of the galaxy, we are decades behind. However, in the United States, the only rule that would make manufacturers responsible for recycling solar panels wouldn't take effect until 2025, leaving customers to bear the burden. In 2021, California will change the hazardous waste category for solar panels from "hazardous" to "universal hazardous," but they are not passing along the associated costs and obligations to the end user. Because of their inclusion in this new category, the criteria for collecting, transporting, and storing PV modules have been loosened. Recyclers, for instance, won't have to waste time and money doing time-consuming and expensive leaching tests. At least fifteen percent of all installed PV modules will be recycled as a result of regulations put in place by the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). Others, though, have pointed out a few problems with the policy. To begin, there is little difference between what is needed to recycle PV modules and what is needed to dispose of them in a landfill. And that's a major issue since sending trash to the landfill is now the cheapest option. Furthermore, recyclers in California are not permitted to employ the heat and chemical processes that are standard elsewhere. The SEIA launched a PC-cycle-style voluntary recycling program in 2016 to make up for the absence of mandatory regulations. As of the year 2020, they had recruited a few manufacturers, notably First Solar, who together have recycled over 4 million pounds of PV modules and associated equipment.
Current solar panel recycling costs may be high, but there may be savings in the long term. Rystad Energy predicted in a recent report that by 2030, the market for recycled solar panel materials could be worth $2.7 billion. To estimate their prospective market size in the year 2050, double that number by 30. Soaring energy prices, innovative new technologies, and government oversight would all play a role in this exponential expansion. When it comes to regulations, a study written by experts from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) last year offered guidance to lawmakers on how to establish a profitable solar panel market. To help offset the expense of recycling, this was their primary recommendation. To be more precise, we could recycle 20% of our PV modules at a profit by 2032 if we were given an $18 incentive. As recycling technology improves, this situation may improve even more. In this instance, a large increase in profitability might be achieved by recovering 94% of the silver and 97% of the silicon present in the PV modules.
While still in its infancy, new recycling technology has the potential to increase silicon and silver recovery from PV modules. It may take more time than in LABs to find the optimal method of recycling solar panels, but that method will eventually be found. This kind of recycling enhancement is now occurring in the lithium ion battery industry.
By finding new uses for every part of a solar panel, we can cut down on the quantity of trash going to landfills and the amount of resources needed to produce new solar panels. Regulations should make landfilling less practical, in addition to increasing the profitability of recycling. The potential for massive market expansion after the wrinkles have been ironed out is what makes this so fascinating. If we play our cards well, this might be a victory for the economy and the environment.
How about solar panel recycling in the US?
According to the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, only around 10% of the country's retired panels are recycled, and there are no government requirements to require PV recycling.
Will there always be new solar technology?
Solar power is infinite since it is based on a renewable resource that will never run out. Renewable energy that comes straight from the sun is called solar energy.
Can solar panels be 100% recycled?
That being said, can solar panels be recycled? To put it simply, yeah. The main components of silicon solar modules are glass, plastic, and aluminum, all of which may be recycled in large numbers. The cells may be more easily divided, and little plastic components can evaporate.
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