circular economy energy waste

Yes, solar panels can be recycled

Renewable energy is cleaner than fossil fuel energy. No fuel is burned. There are no emissions from producing the energy itself. But there are still emissions in creating and then disposing of the technology. This is a recurring theme in sceptical dismissals of renewable energy: look at this stack of retired solar panels/wind turbines/electric car batteries – not as green as you thought!

The truth always lies with the comparison. Electric vehicles are cleaner than petrol, even if they’re not charged with renewable energy. If you threw your wind turbines into landfill at the end of their life, they would still do less damage than coal or gas power over the course of their lifetime. We can’t let perfection be the enemy of good, and rejecting renewable technologies because they aren’t 100% environmentally benign is hardly logical.

Naturally, we do want to process things properly at the end of their lives, and there is no excuse for waste. And so of course electric car batteries, wind turbines and solar panels can and should be recycled.

In Rousset, France, you will find Europe’s first solar panel recycling plant – possibly the first dedicated facility in the world. It is run by Veolia and PV Cycle, and it has the capacity to process every retired solar panel in the country at the moment. Panels are dismantled by robots and each component recycled. Glass, which makes up two thirds of the panel, is ground up and returned to the glass making industry. 10-15% of the panel is aluminium, which is easily recycled. Silicon and cabling are processed for the metals. The only thing that can’t be recycled is the 10% plastic, which is burned in steel plants.

If you stop to think about it, there is a very good reason why we haven’t seen plants like this earlier. Solar PV panels last for 25 years, and have only been common and affordable for the last 15 to 20. We’re just now seeing solar panels retired in sufficient numbers for there to be a reliable supply. Commercial recycling hasn’t really been possible until now.

With more and more panels fitted over the years, the supply of obsolete panels will increase, and more recycling plants will open. This is good business – there are useful resources in those panels. It helps that the EU has rules around electronic waste, which remains the responsibility of the manufacturer. That creates an incentive to make sure there are clear and efficient procedures for taking back panels at the end of their life.

Scale matters too. There isn’t a huge amount of value in each individual panel, so it’s going to be most profitable when done in large numbers by robots, like Veulio’s plant. It’s not something that will make sense in small workshops or local plants, and industry cooperation is going to be important in establishing the wider networks that make recycling economical.

Another factor in whether or not panels are recycled is design. If manufacturers remain responsible for the panels at the end of their life, they will ensure that they can be processed. They can design them to be dismantled easily, and reduce the number of non-recyclable parts. They will want to avoid technologies that are harder to process, such as thin-film solar. This is something the wind industry is working on, as the blades of turbines aren’t currently recyclable.

In Britain, look up the not for profit agency PV Cycle if you have obsolete panels, and they will point you in the direction of the nearest collection facility. If PV panels aren’t recycled where you are, they probably will be soon – and governments can help to make that sooner rather than later.

 

6 comments

  1. That’s a good first step. Now we only need to figure out how to source the raw materials for batteries sustainably and dispose of them. I like the ideas of hydro at height and compressed air, but those options are limited by geography. Meanwhile, harvesting materials for lead acid and lithium ion batteries keeps pillaging the earth in a 100% environmentally non-benign way.

    Yes, we can make a full switch to renewables today, but that comes with a 90% energy consumption decrease, which I believe wouldn’t decrease our quality of life. I speak from experience living 5 years off grid and still firing up the petrol generator when the sun hides for 5-10 days in winter.

    Oh but wait, how will we heat our homes if we keep the coal in the ground? What are our options there TODAY? Let’s go the environmental route and install 10cm of hempcrete insulation, but does Europe have enough trees left to burn for heat? It’s a wicked problem.

    I’m sorry, but all this “we’ll just switch to recyclable renewables” techno-optimism is consistently ignoring the elephant in the room. We first need to drastically decrease energy consumption (which includes forgetting about flying ever again), and then we can take a look at using renewable tech to provide bits of energy here and there. It’s a massive change in lifestyle and we need to work on that more than we need to keep our hopes up that the next techno fix is just around the corner, especially since the majority of solutions haven’t ever been applied on any feasible scale in the real world.

    Yes, the solar panel recycling factory (is it by any chance fossil fuel powered?) might be transition-tech and a step in the right direction, but how much more time do we have to keep making these incremental steps? The recent droughts in Europe imply: not much.

    1. I assume that the world will inevitably run on renewable energy eventually – if nothing else, fossil fuels are finite. Whether it’s done in time to prevent catastrophic climate change, that’s the real question. We definitely can’t make the switch today, but most places can do it in a decade if they set their minds to it.

      There are challenges around intermittency, but there are many good solutions besides batteries or hydro storage. There are appliances that can read the grid and know when to charge or sit idle. There is hydrogen conversion, which could be a significant. And yes, there are reductions.

      Any 100% renewable scenario involves very substantial reductions in energy use in developed countries. That might not be not widely understood in the popular press, but it’s far from consistently ignored – not in Britain anyway. The Zero Carbon Britain reports plan for a 78% reduction in travel energy, for example. The Climate Change Committee, the government’s official advisory body, doesn’t assume a direct switch. Every plan I’ve ever seen for decarbonising heating needs starts with insulation and efficiency, which is all about reductions first.

      So while I am also wary of the techno fix, I see plenty of talk about the elephant!

      1. Very good points, and in the end we are both in agreement: the clock is ticking.

        Yes the right plans are in place, now it’s time to push them into action. Just looking at the slow pace of implementation in “well-organized” places, doesn’t bring much hope. I’m looking at all this from a politically corrupt country (Serbia) that is burning out so much coal its cities are suffering some of the worst air polution in the world. And this model translates to much of the region. It’s hard to be optimistic when all around there’s soot, with no end in sight. This is driving a lot of people to give up on making positive changes in a negative vacuum and are instead grabbing what they can for themselves. Like Jim Morrison said “they’re out to get their kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames”.

        This is a bit off-topic, but perhaps one of the underlying reasons why, despite all the efforts and plans, the temperature keeps on rising.

        I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my comments.

        1. I can understand how things can look different depending on local circumstances. Activists are constantly frustrated at the British government, but there is still so much going on.

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