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Solar PV Recycling Identified as Untapped Business Opportunity

June 27, 2016

A new report, End-of-Life Management: Solar Photovoltaic Panels, highlights that recycling or repurposing solar PV panels at the end of their roughly 30-year lifetime can unlock a large stock of raw materials and other valuable components.

The report, co-authored by NREL, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency's Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme (IEA-PVPS), is the first time projections of PV panel waste volumes have been made to 2050.

"The technical potential of materials recovered from end-of-life solar PV panels could exceed $15 billion by 2050," said NREL Analyst Garvin Heath and co-author of the report. "Enabling policy frameworks and technology R&D are needed to address the challenge and will entail long lead times. Lessons learned that are summarized in this report can help guide the future effort. Supporting data collection and analysis are critical to providing information and insights necessary for strategic investments and effective, efficient and affordable end of life management strategies."

The global solar photovoltaic (PV) boom currently underway could represent a significant untapped business opportunity as decommissioned solar panels enter the waste stream in the years ahead. 

The report estimates that PV panel waste, comprised mostly of glass, could total 78 million tons globally by 2050. If fully injected back into the economy, the value of the recovered material could exceed $15 billion by 2050. This potential material influx could produce 2 billion new panels or be sold into global commodity markets, thus increasing the security of future PV supply or other raw material-dependent products.

The report suggests that addressing growing solar PV waste, and spurring the establishment of an industry to handle it, would require: the adoption of effective, PV-specific waste regulation; the expansion of existing waste management infrastructure to include end-of-life treatment of PV panels; and the promotion of ongoing innovation in panel waste management.

Heath, who leads the IEA-PVPS group, says the group is preparing an additional publication that reviews global public- and private-sector trends in the technology development of PV module recycling.