Twenty-five is a magic number in the solar industry. Why? Because it is the number of years that most crystalline silicon solar panel manufacturers warranty the power output of their panels. But what happens next? Although the panels can still technically generate power beyond this point, their power output begins to decrease significantly.
As the industry continues to grow over the coming decades, and today’s solar modules approach the end of their useful lives, we will find ourselves with a serious solar trash problem.
A new report from GlobalData delves into a hidden side of the solar industry that will emerge as a result of this problem over the next 15 years–solar module recycling. According to the firm’s report, end-of-life PV modules are expected to generate approximately 24,855 tons of waste in 2025. By 2035, the amount is expected to increase to 1,161,173 tons.
As one might expect, there are significant financial opportunities in this sector. In 2025, a PV module is expected to generate $0.58 per watt in recycled value, increasing to $1.21 per watt in 2035. The major factors driving this trend are the rise in solar panel installations from 2000 to 2010, an expected increase in recycling rates, and a rise in the market price of solar module materials, like glass and aluminum.
Overall, the total value of recycled crystalline modules is expected to increase from $122 million in 2025 to $12.9 billion by 2035.
The emergence of solar module recycling is just part of a growing market for electronic waste, or e-waste. A recent study by Pike Research found that the amount of total e-waste generated worldwide is expected to double to 1,465 million cubic feet by 2025. Today, the vast majority of e-waste that doesn’t go to the landfill ends up in developing countries, where it is processed with little consideration for human or environmental health.
One organization that is working to ensure that the solar industry does not go down the same road as the electronics industry when it comes to recycling is the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC). SVTC believes that solar manufacturers can ensure that PV is a truly sustainable energy resource by reducing the use of toxic chemicals in PV, developing responsible recycling systems, and protecting workers at every stage of the global PV supply chain.
The organization’s annual Solar Score Card [PDF] ranks solar manufacturers according to standards of product recycling, worker health and safety, chemical use and life-cycle analysis and company disclosure statements. In 2011, the top-ranking manufacturers were SolarWorld, Trina Solar, First Solar, REC and Abound Solar.