• solar PV
  • Recycling
  • Circular Economy
  • Policy and Regulations

Solar Panel Recycling Could Establish a Circular Economy and Address the Growing E-Waste Glut

Jul 19, 2023

Guidehouse Insights solar panel

The sun is shining on the solar PV (SPV) industry, but darker clouds loom on the horizon.

Global annual SPV installations reached a record high in 2022, and growth is forecast to continue, with Guidehouse Insights estimating that global SPV capacity will more than triple by 2030. Solar is expected to surpass coal to become the largest source of power capacity in the world by 2027.

There is little doubt that the tremendous growth in installed SPV capacity has been pivotal for the energy transition. But the questions that are more pressing (and seldom asked) center on end-of-life (EOL) management for solar panels. With so many panels being deployed across the world, usually for no more than 2 decades, what will become of these thin layers of glass and metal? Today, most end their journeys in landfills.

Sustainability in the electronics industry is often best achieved by addressing an issue before it occurs. That is exactly what Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI) and a group of e-scrap recycling companies and organizations aim to do. Reflecting more than 2 years of work, SERI recently released a draft of solar panel recycling requirements that defines SPV modules, adds solar cells to the “focus materials” definition, updates its equipment categorization to include a level of function for SPV modules, and creates a new appendix covering how to incorporate new material into the current standard.

EOL management becomes more urgent when the lifetime of a panel is considered. The solar power boom began to accelerate 10-15 years ago and brought exponential growth each year, sometimes at a rate of 20%-30% per year. Most SPV panels in use today were designed to last 25-30 years, but many face early retirement due to damage or upgrades. According to Guidehouse Insights’ recent report on the solar panel recycling market, the actual life span of an SPV panel is usually closer to 14-15 years, which means some of the earliest SPV panels are approaching or already at their EOL.

SPV is often considered one of the cleanest sources of energy; however, panels are only emissions-free during operations and can lead to heavy emissions in the manufacturing and disposal stages. The raw materials used to make the panels often undergo melting and cooling after being mined. As silicon and glass are abundant and nontoxic, they create no environmental threat during collection, but the metal mining process emits greenhouse gases and often causes soil, air, and water pollution. Metal mining also contributes to material scarcity. Additionally, the transportation of panels adds to lifecycle emissions, as most panels are manufactured in China, the US, or Europe but are used globally. Creating a circular SPV economy by reusing materials from discarded panels can help avoid excess mining, reducing emissions and material scarcity.

Despite the benefits of SPV panel recycling, uptake has been hampered by low landfill costs, high recycling expenses, and a lack of adequate government policies. Today, more than 85% of retired SPV panels go to landfills or are exported to developing countries where low income communities use them to power water pumps for farming. This growing e-waste glut could present serious environmental challenges if an appropriate SPV waste management system is not in place.

However, it also offers opportunity. Guidehouse Insights estimates the global SPV recycling market could reach 136.7 million panels annually by 2032. For now, amid a lack of adequate policies, voluntary take-back schemes by SPV manufacturers are helping tackle the situation. In addition to SERI, Europe has regulations in place for EOL panel management, the US is building state-level initiatives to support the market, and policymakers in Asia are prioritizing EOL management, with China, India, and Japan emerging as market leaders. For more information—including market forecasts, drivers, and barriers, as well as recommendations for regulators and policymakers, SPV manufacturers and installers, and third-party recyclers and researchers—check out Guidehouse Insights’ Solar Panel Recycling Market report.