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As solar booms toward terrawatts, recycling imperative arises

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A field of solar panels in Lamberts Bay, South Africa, will someday need to be recycled, offering the opportunity to recover valuable materials.

Source: Associated Press

As solar suppliers worldwide expand their collective installed capacity from about 500,000 MW entering 2019, the industry must prevent a growing waste stream associated with billions of aging panels from eclipsing their environmental benefits, according to Andreas Wade, First Solar Inc.'s global sustainability director.

Carbon-free electricity from sunlight is the core sustainability metric of solar power, but preparing for substantial volumes of photovoltaic panel waste is imperative for its long-term sustainability, Wade and other industry experts said. It also represents a multibillion-dollar opportunity to save on raw materials, Wade said ahead of Global Recycling Day on March 18.

"The industry is going to continue to grow. If you look at the trajectory ... we are talking about terrawatts," Wade said in a recent interview. "To be able to do that, the industry has to be inherently sustainable. That's why we feel it is important to provide industry leadership, to develop standards, to encourage investors to ask these questions." All too often, "the question of sustainability is not really addressed."

First Solar itself has installed more than 200 million thin-film photovoltaic, or PV, panels around the world, enough to stretch "to the moon and back," Wade said.

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'Ultimate goal in sustainability'

An Arizona-based company, First Solar is a rarity among leading PV module-makers with its dedicated recycling operations in each of the locations where it produces its thin-film modules, including in Ohio, Vietnam and Malaysia. And while First Solar no longer manufactures in Germany, it still recycles there. The company's annual sustainability reports detail its recycling of hazardous and nonhazardous waste materials, including the toxic heavy metal cadmium in its semiconductor, as well as a conflict minerals policy underlying its supply chain management.

First Solar's recycling process recaptures about 90% of the glass it uses — by far the largest single material in solar panels and more than 90% of its semiconductor, according to the company's latest sustainability report, released in February. For now, most of that is used in other products. While First Solar's panels contain about 17% recycled semiconductor material, the company cannot yet reuse its own recycled glass because of quality issues, according to Wade.

"We want to get there," Wade said, calling full recycling of high-quality "float glass" his "ultimate goal in sustainability."

Considering regular 30-year lifespans for solar panels, mixed with some "early-loss" modules, First Solar anticipates a steep ramp-up of recycling in Germany in the next decade, partly also because of the expiration of 20-year feed-in tariffs for a large number of projects completed in the 2000s, many of which may seek to repower with higher efficiency, lower-cost panels.

As large solar farms the company installed around the world in more recent years reach the end of their lifetimes in the 2030s and 2040s, First Solar believes that mobile recycling facilities may be the best option. The Topaz Solar Farm, for instance, one of the world's largest solar projects, relies on First Solar modules. "You have about 600 MW of panels out there, which is more than a million tons of glass," Wade said. Rather than shipping all of that to a central location, the company believes that on-site recycling makes a lot of sense.

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$15 billion opportunity

By 2030, cumulative global PV panel waste could equal 1.7 million to 8 million tons, based on a total anticipated PV capacity of 1,600 GW, according to a first-of-its kind report from the International Energy Agency and the International Renewable Energy Agency published in 2016. That would also represent $450 million in value for materials recovery, enough to produce 60 million new PV panels, equivalent to 18 GW, the report found.

Both the recycling risks and rewards are set to soar by midcentury, with PV panel waste exploding to between 60 million and 78 million tons on a cumulative capacity of 4,500 GW. That could become a $15 billion opportunity in recovering enough material for two billion new PV modules with a combined capacity of 630 GW, according to the report, with the largest volume of waste in China, followed by the United States, Japan, India and Germany.

It remains unclear, however, how the largest centers of aging solar panels and the industry as a whole will respond. The European Union is the only major market with regulations specific to PV waste. Several manufacturers of crystalline solar panels, which represent the bulk of industry product, failed to respond to requests for information about their recycling plans. While crystalline modules do not contain cadmium like First Solar panels, other hazardous materials are present, including tin, silver and lead. Despite widespread scientific interest, current commercial recycling of solar panels is not widespread outside of Europe, according to a report by the Electric Power Research Institute.

But the Solar Energy Industries Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, said the industry is committed.

"As the volume of solar installations across the U.S. grows, our industry is developing programs to ensure safe recycling of panels and other components at the end of their lifecycles," said Dan Whitten, the association's vice president of public affairs, noting partnerships with commercial recycling companies. "As an industry that reduces CO2 emissions by 73 million metric tons annually, we are embodying that sustainability by committing to safe and effective component recycling and reuse and working with experts and regulators to develop the proper approach to solar equipment recycling."