Are solar panels an impending eco-disaster

Solar panels are thrown into a pile by a forklift

Solar panels only last up to 25 years, despite the fact that they are widely advertised as a vital tool in cutting carbon emissions.

According to experts, it will eventually be necessary to dispose of and replace billions of panels.

More solar power than one terawatt has been installed worldwide. There may be as many as 2.5 billion solar panels in existence if you count rooftops and solar farms. Regular solar panels have a capacity of about 400W. Dr. Rong Deng, a solar panel recycling specialist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, makes this statement.

The British government estimates that there are tens of millions of solar panels in the country. However, there is a lack of specialized infrastructure to recycle and scrap them.

To avert an impending global environmental catastrophe, energy experts are urging urgent government action.

If we don't start recycling chains now, there will be a mountain of waste by 2050, according to Ute Collier, deputy director of the International Renewable Energy Agency.

The production of solar panels is increasing, which is great, but she wonders how they will be disposed of.

When the first factory in the world devoted to completely recycling solar panels opens its doors in France at the end of June, it is hoped that a significant step will be taken.

The facility is located in the Alpine city of Grenoble, and its owner, ROSI, hopes to eventually be able to extract and reuse 99 percent of a unit's components.

The new factory can recover nearly all of the precious materials contained in the panels, including silver and copper, which are typically some of the hardest materials to extract, in addition to recycling the glass fronts and aluminum frames.

Then, new, more potent solar units can be created using these rare materials that have been recycled and reused.

Silver fragments recovered from solar panels
Silver shards recovered from solar panels at the Grenoble ROSI plant.

Most of the aluminum and glass in solar panels are recovered using conventional recycling techniques, but according to ROSI, the glass is of relatively poor quality.

The glass recovered using those techniques can be used to make tiles, for sandblasting, or in the production of asphalt; however, it cannot be used in processes that call for high-grade glass, such as the creation of new solar panels.   .

The launch of the new ROSI facility coincides with a surge in solar panel installations.

In 2021, the capacity of solar energy production worldwide increased by 22%. Every month in the UK, about 13,000 photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are installed, the majority of them on the roofs of private homes.

Solar panels frequently lose a significant portion of their economic viability before they reach the end of their anticipated lifespan. Since new, more effective designs are constantly being developed, it may be more cost-effective to replace solar panels that are only 10 or 15 years old with more recent models.

According to Ms. Collier, the amount of scrap solar panels could be enormous if current growth trends continue.

"We estimate that by 2030, there will be four million tonnes of scrap, which is still manageable, but by 2050, there may be more than 200 million tonnes worldwide. ".

To put that into perspective, 400 million tonnes of plastic are currently produced globally each year.

Because there hasn't been much waste to process and reuse until recently, there aren't many facilities for recycling solar panels.

Only recently has the first generation of domestic solar panels reached the end of its useful life. Experts say immediate action is required because those units are currently nearing retirement.

Ms. Collier advises that you should think about this right away.

According to Nicolas Defrenne, France is already at the top of the European league when it comes to processing photovoltaic waste. His organization, Soren, collaborates with ROSI and other businesses to plan the removal of solar panels across France.

According to Mr. Defrenne, "the biggest one [we decommissioned] took three months.".

In order to recycle the materials they collect, his team at Soren has been experimenting: "We're throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.". ".

Solar panel recycling process
To salvage priceless materials, solar panels are delaminated.

The solar panels are painstakingly disassembled at ROSI's cutting-edge facility in Grenoble to recover the priceless components inside, including copper, silicon, and silver.

These rare materials are only found in minute amounts within each solar panel, and because they are so intricately woven with other parts, it has not been practical to separate them until now.

However, Mr. Defrenne claims that because they are so valuable, effectively extracting those priceless materials could be a game-changer.

According to him, the solar panels' 3 percent weight account for more than 60% of their value.

The Soren team is optimistic that in the future, nearly three-quarters of the materials—including silver—necessary to make new solar panels will be able to be recovered from retired PV units and recycled, accelerating the production of new panels.

According to Mr. Defrenne, there is currently insufficient silver available to produce the millions of solar panels that will be needed to make the switch from fossil fuels: "You can see where you have a production bottleneck, it's silver.". " .

Large truck transports solar panels
a truck carrying solar panels.

British researchers have been working on ROSI-like technology in the interim.

University of Leicester researchers revealed last year that they had figured out how to extract silver from PV units using a type of saline.

However, ROSI is the only business in its industry that has scaled up to an industrial level.

In addition, the technology is pricy. Solar panel producers or importers are in charge of disposing of them when they are no longer needed in Europe. And because it is much cheaper, many people prefer crushing or shredding the waste.

Mr. Defrenne acknowledges that solar panel recycling is still in its early stages. Last year, Soren and its partners recycled slightly less than 4,000 tonnes of French solar panels.

However, there is a lot more that could be done. And he has made it his goal.

By the time they wear out in 20 years, the weight of all new solar panels sold in France last year was 232,000 tonnes, so that is how much I'll need to collect each year.   .

"When that occurs, it is personally important to me that France maintain its position as the world's technological leader. ".

On BBC Sounds, hear The Climate Question.

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