Time to recycle solar panels

Photovoltaic (PV) products are playing an increasingly important role in supplying green energy and promoting the green economy, but at the same time, PV waste is posing big risks to the environment.

China is both a big producer and a big consumer of PV panels. Its PV module production has been first in the world for the last 15 years and its cumulative PV installation has ranked first for the last seven years, accounting for a third of the world’s total.

The life span of solar panels is 25 to 30 years, with even undamaged panels needing replacement after this time. China’s PV industry began to develop around 2000, and the first solar panels installed will begin reaching their end of life in the next few years. According to the National Energy Administration, 1.7 million tons of PV modules will need to be recycled annually in 2030 and the amount will increase to 20 million tons in 2050. By 2060, the tonnage of decommissioned PV modules will jump at an annual rate of 30 percent.

In the face of this mountain of PV waste, China must increase its capacity for PV disposal and recycling. A typical solar panel is composed of materials including glass, copper, aluminum, silicon, silver, gallium, indium and fluorine. Some of them are recoverable, like copper and aluminum, while others are difficult to recycle, like fluorine, which is a pollutant. Recycling the

recyclable components of PV panels will save resources, and properly disposing of the other components will mitigate environmental pollution, particularly water and soil pollution.

Unlike for batteries, laptops and TVs, there is no established system for recycling PV panels in China. Although some small companies and workshops are already involved in the disposal and recycling of PV waste, the lack of systematic disposal and management is actually storing up environmental troubles for the future.

China’s PV waste recycling has encountered two obstacles. One is a lack of related policies. Currently, the disposal of solar panels is subject to the same rules as ordinary solid waste and there are no specific schemes for the disposal of PV waste. As a result, PV waste is either piling up in power stations, or being recycled and disposed of by small workshops as ordinary waste.

The other obstacle is that China still lacks mature PV panel dismantling technologies. Mostly, PV modules are dismantled in simple ways. Waste tends to be reused as construction and filling materials. This requires the use of machines that produce big noises and intense dust. Particularly, fluorine cannot be properly disposed of. Although there is research on how to dismantle solar panels in an environmentally responsible way, the huge costs and inputs needed to do so have deterred most attempts.

China is now in urgent need of specific policies on the disposal and recycling of PV waste to standardize the work. More importantly, there must be compulsory requirements for recycling on the part of PV panel producers or operators, backed by stringent laws and regulations. By no means should PV waste be left in the wild fields or be collected by small workshops and disposed of as they like. Meanwhile, the government should offer guidance and support to producers and operators to help them upgrade PV waste recycling technologies and minimize the pollution caused in the process.

A bellwether in terms of PV panel production and consumption, China is expected to set an example for the rest of world in terms of PV waste disposal and recycling.  –The Daily Mail-Beijing Review news exchange item