A report released on Monday by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) indicates that recycling solar panels could become a $15 billion industry by 2050.
Solar energy is viewed as greener as it produces less greenhouse gases compared to fossil fuels. But environmental analysts have worried about the waste impact of creating new solar panels and disposing old ones. Yahoo News reported in 2013 that some solar firms created millions of pounds of toxic waste without selling a single panel. Much of this waste consists of water laced with cadmium, a known carcinogenic which can also damage the lungs and kidneys.
Solar Panel Lifetimes
The IRENA report states that a solar panel will normally last about 30 years. Since there has been a boom in solar panel installation within the past 10 years, that means that many of these panels will reach the end of their lifespan in the 2030s and beyond.
Disposing of these panels will be a challenge. Regulations in Europe dictate that all solar PV producers supplying the EU market, including those recycling tyres, must account for the costs of disposing them, and companies such as First Solar are looking at providing mobile recycling solar units. But all too often, solar panels are either tossed in a landfill or burned, releasing toxic chemicals into the environment.
This problem is especially notable in developing countries that use small solar generators to obtain cheap electricity without major infrastructure investments. These countries lack the necessary disposal facilities.
Solar Panel Recycling Opportunities
But while it is a challenge, it is also an opportunity. Recycling efforts in the past have been haphazard because there were not enough solar panels installed to merit large scale waste disposal methods. But the installation of so many new solar panels will give innovative companies the chance to make money by recycling panels, creating the viable, large industry that IRENA forecasts.
This increase in solar panel recycling will accompany the development of solar power. The IRENA report states that global installed PV capacity was at 222 GW at the end of 2015. This will rise to 4,500 GW by 2050, with high development rates expected in China, India, and the United States.