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An imminent green gold rush? Solving the looming solar panel waste challenge

Wealth of Geeks

Published: November 21, 2023

As solar panels installed in the early 2000s approach the end of their 25- to 30-year lifespans, a pressing issue emerges. What becomes of these panels once they're no longer functional?
A possible future looms in which mountains of discarded solar panels collect in landfills. Although intended to reduce carbon footprints, they will instead pose both environmental challenges and economic opportunities.
The question has fueled a surge in the solar panel recycling market, often described as the next "Green Gold Rush." BCC Research projects the solar panel recycling market could experience a compound annual growth rate of 36.8% through 2028, eventually reaching a valuation of $1.7 billion.
The First Situation: Massive Surges In Retired Solar Panels
An influx of retired solar panels presents a complex and multifaceted issue. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that by 2050, the world could see 78 million metric tons of solar panel waste.
"The world has installed more than one terawatt of solar capacity," University of New South Wales in Australia's Dr. Rong Deng, an expert in solar panel recycling, tells the BBC. 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.
Although hazardous to the environment, discarded solar panels also present economic opportunities. In 2016, the International Energy Agency claimed the recovered material's value could exceed $15 billion by 2050.
Yet, results thus far show the vast majority of retired solar panels are not recycled but accumulate in landfills instead. MIT Technology Review estimates fewer than 10% of decommissioned solar panels in the United States are earmarked for recycling. Between 2030 and 2060, roughly 9.8 million metric tons of solar panel waste will accumulate, according to a 2019 study published in Renewable Energy.
According to the Harvard Business Review, it costs between $20 and $30 to recycle one solar panel. Disposing of that same panel in a landfill would only cost $1 to $2.
The Problem: Outdated Solar Panels and Environmental Issues
Solar panels are prime examples of renewable energy technology, but they also have a downside. While they contain valuable materials such as silicon, they also contain components that can be harmful if not managed properly after decommissioning.
Older panels, for example, may contain hazardous materials such as cadmium or lead. Improper disposal of older solar panels can result in environmental degradation, contaminated soil, and polluted water sources, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The risks extend beyond environmental contamination, however. Discarded solar panels pose fire hazards, especially when improperly stored in landfills. The combination of flammable materials such as ethylene-vinyl acetate and electrical components creates conditions ripe for combustion, as noted in the journal Materials (Basel). Such fires pose immediate dangers, releasing toxic fumes that can harm humans and wildlife.
Landfills are the default destination for many types of solid waste, but the facilities need to be equipped to handle the complexities of solar panel disposal. As a result of these complex issues, the need for specialized recycling methods has arisen. Effective strategies must prevent hazardous waste, as well as harness valuable materials like copper and silver.
Recycling alone will not eliminate the risks associated with retired solar panels. If not safely recycled, the EPA notes there is a possibility that antimony, a lesser-known toxic material, to leach out of certain solar panels. When exposed to the elements, antimony can seep into the groundwater, posing a risk to aquatic life.
The Opportunity: Employment and Industrial Prospects
The urgent need for solar panel recycling does offer economic benefits, however. There is an ongoing need for research and development of new technologies. Scientists and engineers must create more efficient and environmentally friendly solar panel recycling methods.
Operational roles in recycling plants are also rising, with positions ranging from waste management technicians to logistical coordinators.
The economic opportunities continue beyond the technical level. Global enactment of solar panel waste management regulations drives the demand for regulatory, compliance, and legal professionals. Such roles are critical for ensuring recycling operations meet government standards. Navigating the complex legal landscape surrounding proper waste management also requires skilled legal experts.
The Financial Incentives: Reclaiming Valuable Raw Materials
The financial prospects of the solar panel recycling industry could be a driving force in the program's ability to ramp meet future demand.
One of the most lucrative opportunities lies in extracting nano-silicon from decommissioned panels. According to BCC Research, six retired solar panels can yield 1 kilogram of nano-silicon, with a per-kilogram market value of $45,000.
Nano-silicon is not the only valuable material that can be reclaimed. Copper, silver, and aluminum are also present in solar panels and are readily extractable. A Yale School of the Environment report indicates the value of raw materials in discarded solar panels could reach $15 billion by 2050. This projection offers a strong incentive for entrepreneurs and investors to consider the solar panel recycling market.
Solar Panel Recycling Solutions On The Horizon
The Washington Post reports a novel microwave technology can efficiently extract valuable materials such as copper and silver from old panels. The technology reduces waste and minimizes the energy required for the extraction process.
The journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling presents another promising approach. Advanced optical sorting techniques accurately identify and separate materials within the solar panels, streamlining the recycling process and reducing the environmental footprint.
Likewise, Chemical & Engineering News reports the development of chemical processes that neutralize hazardous materials like cadmium and lead, preventing those metals from contaminating the environment.
The Renewable Energy Paradox
Solar panels are pivotal in the renewable energy movement and the mission to reduce carbon footprints. They also hold a prominent position in what's known as the renewable energy paradox. Renewable energy technologies designed to reduce emissions can also be hazardous to the environment themselves.
As millions of solar panels reach retirement age, it's vital for citizens to ask the right questions and prioritize safe recycling solutions. Solar panels currently account for about 4.5% of the world's energy production. What will happen when those figures grow exponentially in the near future? What will happen when the next generation of solar panels is retired?
This article was produced by Green Building Elements and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.