Life & Solar

As the number of solar panels on the UK’s roofs increases, so too will the number that have to be recycled. By 2036 it could be as many as almost 9m PV panels. Lee Petts looks at the rather large figures involved

Since 2010, the number of solar PV installations on UK homes has risen dramatically. But what happens at the end of their working life? According to government figures, there were 28,454

solar PV installations of below 4kW installed in 2010. If, as is often predicted, the life expectancy of these solar panels is 20 years, in just 13 years from now we could be seeing the first significant replacement of domestic solar modules starting in the UK.

The European solar PV industry has established a voluntary take-back scheme, called “PV Cycle”, which has a presence in the UK. Its goal is to collect a minimum of 65 percent of the PV modules installed across Europe since 1990, and to recycle 85 percent of waste.

Based on those goals, from the end of December 2030 PV Cycle could expect to collect panels from 18,554 of those installations carried out in 2010. At about 16 panels per 4kW installation, that’s almost 300,000 in total. They weigh-in at about 15 kg per square metre, with a 4kW system typically taking up 28 square metres of roof space and weighing around 420kg.

The enormous annual growth we’ve seen in domestic solar PV installations since 2010 means that the number of end-of-life installations could then be expected to swell considerably year-on-year. If PV Cycle achieves its 65 percent take-back goal, the figures would be as in Table 1:

So, between 2030 and 2036, there could be a requirement to collect and recycle 35.1m PV panels, weighing 911,370 tonnes, from a total of 2,169,929 installations! Right now, I think that looks like a big ask.

If the PV Cycle goal to recycle 85 percent of the waste is weight-based (as such targets often are) it would mean that 136,705 tonnes of will be disposed of, possibly to landfill.

Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is already Europe’s fastest growing waste stream, and it looks like end-of-life solar panels are going to add to that. And, if the Government achieves its goal of continuing to add more and more solar capacity, the scale of the problem will grow too.

But there’s also another important consideration: some panels contain cadmium telluride and other hazardous components; they may need to be classified as hazardous waste and described using the relevant European Waste Catalogue (EWC) entries but, as yet, it doesn’t seem that there is official guidance from environmental regulators.

So, can we do it?

Whilst it might be a big ask, the UK waste and resources sector has shown, time and time again, that it is capable of rising to such challenges. Think fridge recycling, toner cartridges, incinerator fly ash, tyres… in fact, think everything that used to go to landfill but has progressively been banned as a consequence of the EC Landfill Directive 1999.

Similar challenges that have been overcome include finding a way to recycle spent fluorescent lamps that contain small amounts of mercury; CRT televisions and monitors, because they contain leaded glass; and, more recently, LCD and LED screens.

So, in essence, yes, we probably can build the end-of-life solar panel recycling capacity and infrastructure needed from 2030 onwards, but that doesn’t mean we can sit back and take it easy – it’s something that government, the solar sector and the waste and resources industry need to be collaborating on now, in order to make sure that we’re ready when it matters, because, once it starts, it will be a continuing requirement for every domestic solar PV installation that reaches the end of its life to be replaced with another. <

Lee Petts is the managing director of Lancashire-based sustainability, CSR and environmental consultancy Remsol. He is a Chartered Waste Manager, with 20 years experience as a practitioner, and has a strong interest in energy, including renewables.

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