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The Current - Solar PV Disposal Cost Projection

By: Noah Schlosser

The number of solar panels manufactured and installed has grown exponentially since 2000. In the coming three decades, waste from retired solar panels will follow a similar growth trajectory. Global panel waste could reach 8 million tons by 2030 and 78 million tons by 2050. Landfilling solar panels poses an environmental risk, as heavy metals can leach from panel materials into the soil. Current research suggests proper recycling of panel materials is not cost-competitive versus using new materials. PV panel recycling programs that are cost-competitive and at a scale sufficient to handle the volumes of expected panel waste are needed to avoid these environmental risks from improper panel disposal.

Global PV Growth & Projections for Capacity and Waste
In 2017, global solar photovoltaic (PV) generation capacity was 400 GW. That figure could grow to 1,632 GW by 2030 and 4,512 GW by 2050. In the US, the 2017 PV capacity of 25 GW may grow to 92 GW and 216 GW in the same period. Crystalline silicon PV panels generally have a 30-year expected lifetime. Global PV capacity only surpassed 1 GW in 2001, meaning almost all currently-installed panels have at least 10 years before their expected disposal dates.

Considering early retirements of damaged panels and those that do not perform to expectations, total PV panel waste could reach 8 million tons by 2030 and 78 million by 2050. In the US, waste could reach 1 million and 10 million tons for the same period.

Panel Types, Market Shares, and Compositions
Monocrystalline and polycrystalline silicon are the most common types of PV panel. Silicon-based panels (including advanced crystalline silicon) are expected to maintain 80%+ market share of installed capacity through at least 2020, and 45% through 2030. The next most common type of PV panels are thin-film, which mainly come in two types: copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) and cadmium telluride (CdTe). Thin-film panels are expected to surpass 10% market share by 2020; however, increases in their market share past this level is uncertain. Though silicon is the most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, materials for thin-film panels are considerably rarer and may constrain thin-film’s growth prospects. By weight, all panel types are at least 75% glass. Aluminum, which is used for panel frames, is usually around 8%. Other metals, including silver and lead, are a small portion of the panel’s mass.

Estimated Disposal Costs for Materials
The value of recovered silver, aluminum, silicon, and other materials from PV panels may reach $450 million by 2030 and $15 billion by 2050. However, the costs of processing discarded panels likely outweighs the value of recovered materials. Much of this cost comes from removing cadmium and other heavy metals. Recovered glass may also not be recyclable because of contamination from heavy metals, if the removal process is not sufficiently thorough. Except for the rarer components in panels (i.e. silver, gallium, indium, aluminum), recycled panel materials are often not cost-competitive with newly-mined materials.

Policy Factors
In the European Union, PV panels have been included in the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive since 2012. This requires, in part, that manufacturers and importers are responsible for disposal of any panels they sell. In the US, the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act requires commercial entities to properly dispose of hazardous materials, though the specific requirements for solar panel disposal are unclear. This also does not extend to residential panel owners. In 2015, California passed SB489, requiring solar panels be disposed of as hazardous waste.

As solar PV generation capacity grows, governments and manufacturers must begin planning for disposal of an equal number of retired panels. Though the value of recovered resources may be high, the costs of extracting those resources will also be high. Research is needed into cost-effective recycling and disposal of solar PV. If this can’t be done at the same scale as panels are produced, the problem will only grow worse with time.


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