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.