This video is brought to you by brilliant thanks to a 70% drop in prices 2010 and plenty of government subsidies, solar panels have become an integral part of the utility grid, as well as many of our home rooftops. However, this renewable energy technology isn’t all sunshine. There’s shadows that are looming over its bright future, there’s a potential tsunami of panels that will be nearing their end of life in the coming years. The matter of fact, has concerned many people, as the vast majority of panels here in the US aren’t recycled.
So why is that? And what happens to these panels at the end of their service life? Is it even possible to recycle them? There are some interesting advances that we have to talk about. Let’s see if we can come to decision of this.
Solar Panel recycling has been a topic I’ve wanted to talk about for a while now, but just haven’t gotten around to it. And not too long ago, the LA Times published an article that painted a pretty grim picture. And a bunch of you started to ask me about it. Yes, we can recycle them. But it’s complicated. As a big proponent of solar energy. I can’t ignore this as a big looming issue. Unlike solar energy, solar panels aren’t a never ending resource, and most panels will hit their end of life and 30 to 40 years.
Many people talk about 20 to 25 years, but often they’re talking about the panel’s warranty period, they can last much longer than that. But when they do hit end of life, what happens to them at that point? The answer is kind of complicated as football voltaic panels or multi layered sandwiches made from different materials. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, easy to recycle materials, like glass panes and aluminum frames make up 80% of a typical PV module.
So how about that remaining 20%? Well, this changes depending upon the type of the panel. So let’s take a look at silicon based PV modules which represent about 90% of the global market. In this case, you have a silicon cell with a silver grid on top. Also, there’s an ethylene vinyl acetate layer sandwiching the cell finally at the back of the panel, you have a plastic junction box with copper wiring inside. And while all these materials are potentially recyclable, separating them out is a labor intensive and complex process.
In the best case scenario, solar panels end up in glass recycling facilities, where they mechanically pop off the aluminum frame and the plastic junction box and they strip off the copper wiring. Then recyclers shred the class pain without isolating the sandwich components and sell a not so shiny glass powder, also known as cullet, which can be used as a building material or for other industrial applications.
The worst case scenario is solar panels are shredded as received. However, this isn’t worth the effort for recyclers a paper estimate that you can barely make $3 from the recovery class, aluminum and copper have a 60 cell silicon module that amounts dwarfed by the expenses. As the cost of recycling a panel here in the West can cost up to $25. In contrast, sending a module to the landfill cost just $2. So you may see why only about 10% of us panels get recycled.
Things could change if we could recover silicone and silver accounting for about 60% of the modules value. To do this, you would need high temperature thermal and chemical treatments on top of the mechanical steps which translates into higher costs. Recovering silicon may not be enough to offset the cost. That’s what researchers found out when assessing the feasibility of a 2000 ton recycling plant. According to scientists, the process wouldn’t be profitable as unlike thin film modules, silicon based panels like valuable metals like Indium and gallium. Besides their low intrinsic economic value solar panels are fragile and could be classified as hazardous waste when they fail a heavy metals leach test.
This means you need a specialized workforce treatment, packaging and transport to handle them safely. Not to mention the potential environmental impact of contaminating the soil and groundwater with nasty chemicals like lead and cadmium when you’re chucking them into the landfill. As reported by the LA Times panels go through a treatment such as class limited encapsulation or JLE.
This process seals the panel and minimizes heavy metals from leaching out. And researchers simulated and ran multiple tests on the effect of GLP lead leaching potential. So how well does it work? Well, in one case, Jelly reduced the lead mobility by up to nine times, making it nearly harmless for the environment. However, one of the tests revealed that jelly was not enough to limit lead spreading. Now factoring in solar panel disposal and panels getting early retirement for newer, more efficient panels. The Harvard Business Review predicted that the levelized cost of energy of solar panels could quadruple by 2035. I think that’s a little aggressive. But we’re in uncharted territory here.
The absence of nationwide laws mandating recycling doesn’t help either. In fact, only five states have put in place solar panels end of life policy so far, with the solar trash wave looming, we better find a way to recycle more, and we need to be quick to stay ahead of now according to the International Renewable Energy Agency or the IEA. By 2050, we could have nearly 80 million metric tons worth of solar panel waste.
That sounds like a pile of solar garbage that could eclipse the sun. Sounds like something Mr. Burns could get behind. Now, clearly, the sun isn’t shining on solar panel recycling yet, but we shouldn’t get stuck in a doom and gloom scenario here. We’ve already managed to sort out similar problems in the past and we can learn from that. Let’s look at the lead acid batteries. success story. Now a study from the battery Council International reported a lead acid battery recycling rate of 99% between 2014 and 2018 here in the US, led acid batteries are the most recycled American product today. But how long did it take us to get there?
Well, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, we recycled around 70% of lead acid batteries back in 1985. Back then, lead price was so low that recycling lead acid batteries wasn’t economically attractive. It’s not that different from what we’re seeing today. Yet pushed by strategic legislation, it began to ramp up. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was one of the most important nationwide regulatory drivers signed off by the US government in 1976. This law identified some metals of concern including lead, however, it took us another 15 years or so to really see the impact. In the early 1990s, several states finally banned lead acid batteries from landfills.
On top of that local authorities implemented some policies to build the recycling supply chains. Firstly required retailers to accept used lead acid batteries from consumers who were charged deposit for each new battery brought back without returning an old one. Also, a take back program force manufacturers to purchase recycled lead acid batteries from retailers. The benefit of this was that recycling lead acid batteries remain profitable. Even when the lead price plummeted and his policies worked. One year after introducing them Rhode Island increase its lead acid battery recycling rate by up to 40%, reaching a whopping 95% rate in 1990.
And while that was a localized exception at the time, BCI estimated that we reached a 99% recycling rate on a national scale in 2011. A relatively simple chemistry and well established technologies such as pyrometallurgical, smelting supercharged lead acid batteries recycling rate over the years. On the other hand, lead acid batteries conventional recycling process is neither eco friendly or safe. And it consumes a lot of energy and releases lead in greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Which is why researchers have been focusing on development of greener methods over the last decade. And on that note, something interesting has already come out with lead acid battery. Instead of relying on traditional smelting over 1000 degrees Celsius. A screen recycling has designed an electricity powered LED acid batteries recycling process, they’re going to start building their first plant in Texas very soon, which is scheduled to go live by the end of 2023 is expected recycle over 5 million lead acid batteries and avoid 50,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions once they reach their full capacity. Funny enough, the startup is looking into using solar panels to power the whole facility. https://www.tourbr.com/backlink/besuchen-sie-diese-seite/
I wonder if they’ll recycle their expertise to promote PV module recovery to the lead acid battery example highlights how farsighted policies can catalyze recycling efforts. Now clearly, from the technological point of view, the solar panels are a bit more complex. However, researchers companies and regulators are working to improve the cost to revenue ratio. As I mentioned earlier, one of the main economic challenges is to recover higher value materials like silicone and silver.
The current method to etch pure silicone out of solar cells means using hydrofluoric acid, which is highly toxic and corrosive. Last November, Indian researchers came up with a safer and more cost effective recipe including sodium hydroxide, nitric acid and phosphoric acid as ingredients. Now adopting a three step sequential procedure, scientists not only extracted 99.998% pure silicon, but also recovered silver. As a result, they estimated the integrating their technique into the recycling process of a one kilogram solar cell would yield a profit of around $185. Just a month later, a team including Arizona State University researchers, the TGW company startup and the energy firm for solar received a $485,000 grant from the Department of Energy for developing a process that recovers high pure silicon and silver from PV cells. So what’s their silver lining?
Well, first cIgi company’s claims to have designed a heat treatment to boil off the PVA protective layer without damaging or contaminating the solar cell. Unlike conventional furnaces, their oven will operate at a temperature lower than 500 degrees Celsius, which prevents iron and copper from leaching into the solar cell. At that point, it gets a little fuzzy because they’re using a patent pending secret sauce to isolate the silicone and silver. Their CEO said that they’ll rely on less harsh chemicals that can be regenerated indefinitely. And having said that, as flagged by an industry expert, the startup may likely face material losses when separating silicon cells from the polymeric coating.
It’s just a matter of waiting at least a couple of years to fact check their progress. That’s when the startup is aiming to have their first pilot plant up and running, with a recycling target of 100,000 solar panels per year. Aside from research and private sector efforts, legislators need to do their part to power solar panel recycling, just like they did with lead acid batteries. Europe has been a pioneer in this because they labeled solar panels as E waste since 2014. The waste electrical and electronic equipment directive known as we first defined the extended producer responsibility concept, in short, the regulation that compels solar panel manufacturers to fund their own products recycling at the end of their life.
It also requires recycling 80% of the materials used in PV panels. This policy led to opportunities for the EU Recycling Market. For instance, PV cycle developed a recycling program to help manufacturers fulfill we obligations. In February 2020, the EU funded company recycled nearly 95% of solar module content in France, which is well above what’s required by we have achieved this exceptional results by partnering with Veolia, who launched Europe’s first solar panels recycling plant in 2018. Leveraging robots Veolia dismantles the solar sandwiches layer by layer, and recovers silicon, silver and other components.
It’s completely different story here in the US, we’re light years behind. In America, the only law holding producers accountable for solar panel recycling won’t go live until 2025, which means consumers are still paying the price for it. And although they aren’t shifting recycling costs and responsibilities for the user to the producer, California has switched their solar panel waste label from hazardous to universal, hazardous and 2021. Falling in this new category PV modules collection, transport and storage are subject to less stringent requirements. For instance, recyclers won’t have to perform any leaching tests, which is costly and time consuming.
According to the Department of Toxic Substances Control the regulation will trigger the recycling of at least 15% of PV modules that are currently in use. However, some of the policies critics highlighted a couple of drawbacks. First, the requirements for recycling PV modules are essentially the same as those for disposal in a landfill. And that’s a big problems as landfills are currently much cheaper. In addition, California’s regulation doesn’t allow recyclers to apply the thermal and chemical methods commonly used today. While binding rules are lacking. In 2016, the SCA introduced a voluntary recycling program, similar to the one that’s run by PV cycle in Europe as a 2020.
A few manufacturers, including for solar have joined the initiative and helped them recycle over 4 million pounds worth of PV modules and related equipment. Although recycling solar panels is currently an expensive process, it could pay off in the long run. And a recent report rice aid energy estimated that the value of recycling solar panels materials could reach $2.7 billion, and 2030. Now multiply that by 30 times to get their 2050 overall market potential. The main drivers of this crazy growth would be the rising energy costs, technological advancements and regulatory push. Speaking of rules, researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory published a paper last year advising policymakers and how to create a financially viable solar panel industry. Their main suggestion was to subsidize the cost of recycling.
To be more specific, with an $18 incentive, we could profitably recycle 20% of our PV modules by 2032. And this could get even better as recycling technology becomes more efficient. In particular, recovering 94% of the silver and 97% of the silicon contained in the modules would be a significant profitability booster. Giving a second life to all solar panel components would not only reduce the amount of waste ending up in landfills, but it would also shrink the demand for new materials.
Besides boosting recycling profitability, regulations should make landfilling less convenient. While being in its early days, new recycling technology could improve the recovery of PV modules, precious materials such as silicon and silver. And although optimizing solar panels, recycling may take us longer compared to lead acid batteries. It’s just a matter of time, we’re actually seeing this type of recycling improvement happen in the lithium ion battery market right now. But that’s a different video.
What’s exciting is that once the kinks are worked out, this could lead to a huge market opportunity. It can be a win win for the economy, and the environment if we play our cards right. If you’d like to learn more about the science behind solar panel recycling, I’d strongly recommend checking out either the scientific thinking or the chemical reaction course of brilliant, they have fantastic interactive courses that can help you wrap your head around some of what we talked about with solar panels. The chemical reaction course walks you through how matter transforms from starting materials into other substances. You’ll work through puzzles and patterns to determine the basic behavior of molecules undergoing chemical reactions. And all of this plays a role in how we recycle solar panels.
I’ve been working my way through that one and I’m really enjoying learning at my own pace. If you get stuck brilliant will give you in depth explanations, which helps you to understand the why and the how of something and you’re learning the concepts by doing it yourself and applying them to fun and interactive problems. I found that active learning is how I learned best join over 11 million people learning I’m brilliant today. Go to brilliant.org/undecided to sign up for free. And also the first 200 People will get 20% off their annual premium membership. Thanks to brilliant and to all of you for supporting the channel. So you still undecided. Do you think that solar panel recycling will catch up to the coming wave of solar panel waste? Jump in the comments? Let me know. And be sure to check out my follow up podcast still to be determined. We’ll we’ll be discussing some of your feedback. If you’d like this video, be sure to check out one of the ones over here. And thanks to all my Patrons for your continued support and welcome to support plus members, Thomas Merritt and David RT Richardson and producers Sergio Martinez and Andrew Peabody and thanks to all of you for watching. I’ll see the next one.
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