Solar PV recycling value could exceed $15bn by 2050

End-of-life solar PV material recovery could be worth $15bn by 2050, if fully invested back into the economy, according to a report released today (20 June) by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

The End of-Life Management: Solar Photovoltaic Panels report highlights that recycling or repurposing solar PV panels at the end of a roughly 30-year lifetime has the potential to uncover a large volume of raw materials and other valuable components. The report estimates that PV panel waste, comprised mostly of glass, could total 78 million tonnes globally by 2050.

According to IRENA research, the anticipated influx of materials could increase the security of future PV stock to the tune of two billion new panels, or equally be sold into global commodity markets to supply other raw material-dependent products.

Commenting on the report findings, IRENA director-general Adnan Z. Amin said: “Global installed PV capacity reached 222 GW at the end of 2015 and is expected to further rise to 4,500 GW by 2050. With this tremendous capacity growth will come an increase in waste associated with the sector. This brings about new business opportunities to “close the loop” for solar PV panels at the end of their lifetime. To seize these opportunities, however, preparations for the surge in end-of-life material should begin now.

“With the right policies and enabling frameworks in place, new industries that recycle and repurpose old solar PV panels will drive considerable economic value creation and will be an important element in the world’s transition to a sustainable energy future.”

‘Unlock value’

The European Union (EU) was the first body to adopt PV-specific waste regulations instead of the “general waste” classification used by most countries. The EU’s directive regulation include PV-specific collection and recovery and recycling targets, and requires all panel producers that supply photovoltaics to the EU market to finance the costs of collecting and recycling end-of-life PV panels put on the European market.

IRENA’s report suggests that the establishment of an industry that can adopt PV-specific waste regulations would help to address growing solar PV waste issues and promote ongoing innovation in panel waste management.

“Experience with electronic waste tells us that developing technological and regulatory systems for efficient, effective and affordable end-of-life management requires long lead times,” IEA-PVPS chairman Stefan Nowak said. “This timely report can be used by public and private sector institutions to anchor the necessary investments in technology and policy research and development and supporting analyses to unlock the significant recoverable value in end-of-life panels.

“Responsible life-cycle management is an imperative for all PV technologies – the socio-economic and environmental benefits which can potentially be unlocked through end-of-life processes and policies for this waste stream in the future should be seen as an opportunity today to start extending the PV value chain.”

Record growth

The report is the second of several solar-focused publications IRENA has released over the past few days. Last week, the organisation released The Power to Change, which predicts that average costs for electricity generated by solar and wind technologies could decrease by 59% by 2025.

The IRENA document is the latest in a series of encouraging reports which suggest solar technology is set to establish itself as a vital component in the future of green energy transformation. A REN21 publication revealed that solar PV experienced another year of record growth in 2015, with the annual market for new capacity up 25% over 2014.

The tumbling costs of solar have been driving installations across the world and creating thousands of jobs in the process.

George Ogleby

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