Tag Archives: IEA

The Truth About Solar Panels

Thanks to a 70% drop in price since  2010 and plenty of government subsidies,  solar panels have become an integral part of  the utility grid, as well as many home rooftops.

However, this renewable energy technology isn’t  all sunshine. There’s shadows looming over its bright future. There’s a potential tsunami of solar panels that will be nearing their end-of-life   in the coming years.

That fact has concerned many  people, as the vast majority of panels here in the   U.S. aren’t recycled. Why is that and what happens  to these panels at the end of their service life?   Is it even possible to recycle them? There’s  some interesting advances there that we have   to talk about.

Let’s see if we  can come to a decision on this. Solar panel recycling has been a topic I’ve wanted  to talk about for a while, but just haven’t gotten   around to it. Not too long ago, the LA Times  published an article that painted a pretty   grim picture and a bunch of you started asking  me about it.

So, can we recycle solar panels and is the problem really that bad? Yes, we can  recycle them … but it’s complicated. And as a big proponent of solar energy, I can’t  ignore that this is a big, looming issue.

Unlike solar energy, solar panels aren’t  a never ending resource and most panels   will hit their end-of-life in 30 to 40  years. Many people talk about 20-25 years,  but often they’re talking about the panel 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 photovoltaic (PV) panels are multi-layered  sandwiches made from different materials.

According to the Solar for Energy Industries Association (SEIA), easy-to-recycle materials   like the glass pane and aluminum frame make up 80%  of a typical PV module. How about the remaining   20%? This changes depending upon the type of  panel.

Let’s take silicon-based PV modules, which represent 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 (EVA)  layer sandwiching the cell.

Finally, at the back of the panel, you have a plastic junction box  with copper wiring inside. While all of 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 glass pane without isolating the sandwiched components  and sell a not-so-shiny glassy powder,   a.k.a. cullet, which can be used as building  material or for other industrial applications.

In the worst case scenario, solar panels are  shredded as received. However, this isn’t worth   the effort for recyclers. A paper estimated that  you can barely make $3 from the recovered glass, aluminum, and copper of a 60-cell silicon  module.

That amount is dwarfed by the expenses, as the cost of recycling a panel in the U.S. can  cost up to $25. In contrast, sending a module to a landfill costs just $2. So, you may see  why only about 10% of US panels get recycled.

Things could change if we could recover  silicon and silver, accounting for 60% of   the module’s 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 even be  enough to offset the cost. That’s what researchers found out when assessing the  feasibility of a 2,000-ton recycling plant. According to scientists, the process wouldn’t  be profitable as, unlike thin-film modules, silicon-based panels lack 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 being chucked into a landfill. As reported by the LA Times,  panels go through a treatment, such as glass laminate encapsulation (GLE).

This process seals the panel and minimizes heavy metals leaching out. Researchers simulated and ran multiple tests on  the effect of GLE on lead leaching potential. How well does it work? In one case, GLE reduced  the lead mobility by up to 9 times, making it nearly harmless for the environment.

However, one  of the tests revealed that GLE was not enough to limit lead spreading. 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 (LCOE) of solar panels could quadruple  by 2035.

I think that’s a little aggressive, but we’re in uncharted territory here. The absence  of a nation-wide law mandating recycling doesn’t   help either. In fact, only 5 states have put in  place solar panels end-of-life policies so far.

With a solar trash wave looming, we’d better find a way to recycle more … and we need to be quick to   stay ahead of it. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (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. That  sounds like something Mr. Burns could get behind. Clearly, the sun isn’t shining on solar panel  recycling…yet … but we shouldn’t get stuck in doom and gloom 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 (LAB) success story, for instance. A study from the Battery Council International  (BCI) reported a LAB recycling rate of 99%   between 2014 and 2018 here in the US.

LABs  are the most recycled American product today,   but how long did it take us to get there?  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we recycled around 70%  of LABs on average in 1985.

Back then, lead price was so low that recycling LABs 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 (RCRA) was one of the most important   nation-wide 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 LABs from landfills.   On top of that, local authorities implemented some  policies to build their recycling supply chains.

First, they required retailers to accept used  LABs from consumers, who were charged a deposit for each new battery bought without returning  an old one. Also, a take back program forced manufacturers to purchase recycled LABs from  retailers.

The benefit of this was that recycling LABs remained profitable even when the lead  price plummeted. And these policies worked. One year after introducing them, Rhode Island  increased its LAB recycling rate by up to 40%, reaching a whopping 95% rate in 1990.

While  that was a localized exception at that time,   BCI estimated that we reached a 99%  recycling rate on a national scale in 2011. A relatively simple chemistry and a  well-established technology such as pyrometallurgical smelting supercharged  LABs recycling rate over the years.

On the other hand, LABs conventional recycling  process is neither eco-friendly or safe,   as it consumes a lot of energy and releases lead  and greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere,   which is why researchers have been focusing  on the development of a greener method over the last decade.

On that note, something  interesting has already come out of the lab.   Instead of relying on the traditional smelting at  over 1,000 °C, ACE Green Recycling has designed an electricity-powered LABs 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. It’s expected to recycle   over 5 million LABs and avoid 50,000 metric tons  of GHG emissions once they reach full capacity.

Funny enough, the startup is looking into using  solar panels to power their whole facility…I   wonder if they’ll recycle their expertise  to promote PV module recovery too. The LABs example highlights how far-sighted  policies can catalyze recycling efforts.

Clearly, from the technological point of view,  the solar panels case is 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 the higher-value   materials like silicon and silver. The current  method to etch pure silicon 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.   Adopting a 3-step sequential procedure,  scientists not only extracted 99.998% pure silicon   but also recovered silver. As a result, they  estimated that integrating their technique into the recycling process of a 1-kg solar  cell would yield a profit of around $185.

Just a month later, a team including Arizona  State University (ASU) researchers, the TG   companies startup, and the energy firm First Solar  received a $485,000 grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) for developing a process that  recovers high-pure silicon and silver from PV cells.

So, what’s their silver lining? First, TG  companies claim to have designed a heat treatment   to boil off the EVA protective layer without  damaging or contaminating the solar cell.   Unlike conventional furnaces, their oven will  operate at a temperature lower than 500°C,   which prevents iron and copper from leaching  into the solar cell.

At that point it gets a little fuzzy because they use their patent-pending  secret sauce to isolate silicon and silver. Their CEO said they’ll rely on less harsh chemicals that  can be regenerated indefinitely.

Having said that, as flagged by an industry expert, the startup  may likely face material losses when separating silicon cells from their 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 recycling, just like they did with lead acid  batteries.

Europe has been a pioneer in this, labeling solar panels as e-waste since 2014.  The Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive … known as WEEE … first defined   the ‘extended producer responsibility’ concept.

In short, the regulation compels solar panel manufacturers to fund their own products recycling  at the end of 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 WEEE 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 WEEE.

They achieved this exceptional  result 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 a completely different story here in the  U.S. 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.

Although they aren’t shifting recycling   costs and responsibilities from user to producer,  California has switched their solar panel waste label from hazardous to universal hazardous in  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 (DTSC), their regulation will trigger   the recycling of at least 15% of the PV modules  currently in use. However, some of the policy’s   critics highlighted a couple of drawbacks.

First, the requirements for recycling PV modules are essentially the same as those for their  disposal in a landfill. And that’s a big problem since the landfill is 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 SEIA introduced  a voluntary recycling program similar to that run by PC Cycle in Europe.

As of 2020, a few  manufacturers, including First Solar, had joined their initiative and helped them recycle over 4M  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.

In a recent report, Rystad Energy estimated  that the value of recycling solar panels materials   could reach $2.7 billion in 2030. Multiply that  30x to get their 2050 overall market potential.   The main drivers of this crazy  growth would be rising energy costs,   technological advancements, and  regulatory push.

Speaking of rules,   researchers from the National Renewable Laboratory  (NREL) published a paper last year advising   policymakers on how to create a financially viable solar panel industry. Their main suggestion was to subsidize the cost of recycling.

To  be more specific, with a $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 PV 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 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.  Although optimizing solar panels recycling may   take us longer compared to LABs, 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 huge market   opportunities.

It could be a 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 at 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. All of  this plays a role in how we can install solar panels in Maine. I’ve been working my way through that one  and am really enjoying learning at my own pace.

If you get stuck, Brilliant will give you in-depth  explanations, which helps you understand the “why”   and “how” of something. And you’re learning the  concepts by doing it yourself and applying them   through fun and interactive problems.

Thanks to Brilliant and  to all of you for supporting the channel. So are you still undecided? Do you think  solar panel recycling will catch up to the   coming wave of solar panel waste? Jump into the  comments and let me know and be sure to check   out my follow up podcast Still TBD where  we’ll be discussing some of your feedback.

If you liked this video, be sure to check out  one of these videos over here. And thanks to   all of my patrons for your continued support and  welcome to new supporter + members Thomas Merritt and David R T Richardson, and producers  Sergio Martinez and Andrew Peabody.

And thanks to all of you for watching.  I’ll see you in the next one.

Source : Youtube