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The other side of renewables – end of life and circularity of solar panels

24 May 2023
Article by Filipa Faria, Circular Economy consultant at INEGI.

Photovoltaic energy is one of the most attractive renewable energy vectors for clean electricity. Several advantages are associated with it, including the fact that it is a safe, efficient energy source that can be widely distributed, thus contributing to the energy transition associated with decarbonization 1.

It is the third most used renewable energy source in the world - thanks to the accelerated evolution of technology - and the energy generated globally is expected to exceed 8,500 GW by 2050 2. Several countries have established photovoltaic development plans with the aim of stimulating the photovoltaic industry and accelerate the energy transition process. And Portugal is no exception.

At the national level, the National Energy and Climate Plan (PNEC) was developed, with ambitious goals defining that, by 2030, the country should reach a photovoltaic capacity of 9 GW 3. In 2022, our country increased its installed photovoltaic solar capacity by 718 MW, one of the biggest increases in a single year in Portugal: around 42% compared to 2021 4. According to the Directorate General for Energy and Geology (DGEG), from 2013 to October 2022, photovoltaic energy had evolved from an installed capacity of 299 MW to 2,419 MW 4.

Photovoltaic panels: a sustainable solution or a waste problem?

This bet on photovoltaic energy, however, has a negative setback that should not be ignored: what is being done with end-of-life photovoltaic panels?

A photovoltaic panel reaches the end of its life when its efficiency level drops to 80% 2. Although the useful life of panels is, on average, 25 to 30 years, it is estimated that, at the current date, there is a significant number of photovoltaic panels that are reaching the end of their life, resulting in a high amount of waste.

This waste is currently sent to landfills and / or incineration, with no possibility of recycling. It is predicted that, by 2050, with the continued high rate of deployment of photovoltaic panels, around 60-70 million tons of waste photovoltaic panels will be produced worldwide 2.

However, these may contain materials with a high added value, such as silver, silicon and copper, which were considered critical by the European Commission, due to the forecast of their scarcity.

What are the best practices for dealing with waste solar panels?

This problem has received some attention, in the form of innovation projects. However, these have essentially focused on improving the efficiency of the panels' production capacity, and studies on the dismantling and recycling of end-of-life panels are rarely considered.

However, there are already some studies and projects worldwide that have tried to meet the implementation of these processes, considering that the recovery of generated waste can support the implementation of recycling processes as an economically viable option. The recycling of photovoltaic panels can, in fact, save on the extraction of natural resources and reduce the cost of production by incorporating the waste generated in the production of new panels. This is, for example, the case of silicon: with the reuse of this material, the costs associated with its reincorporation will be lower compared to its production costs, since the production of silicon is a process that involves high energy consumption 1.

How INEGI promotes circularity in the photovoltaic industry

Currently, in Portugal, the recovery, recycling or recovery processes of the different materials that make up the photovoltaic panels are practically non-existent or poorly structured. In this context, and with the identified need to implement a system for dismantling and recycling photovoltaic panels, INEGI, in partnership with E-Cycle - Association of Electrical and Electronic Equipment Producers, sought to create a solution.

This project aimed to analyze and evaluate the technical, economic and environmental feasibility of installing and implementing a production line aimed at dismantling and recycling photovoltaic panels, with the consequent recovery of the materials present in their composition.

The execution of the project was divided into two phases, the first of which was dedicated to the technical, economic and environmental analysis of the photovoltaic panel recycling processes. To this end, 16 comparative scenarios of various processes and sub-processes were analyzed, with the aim of finding viable and sustainable options for implementing the recycling of these panels. Investments and costs, CAPEX (Capital Expenditure) and OPEX (Operational Expenditure), respectively, involved in the implementation of the production lines were analysed, as well as cost-benefit indicators, namely Return on Investment (ROI) and the period of Payback.

In a second phase, the potential of companies in the national market with an interest in incorporating materials from the recycling process of photovoltaic panels was analyzed. Although the analysis sample was reduced, relative to the universe under consideration, interest was identified for most of the materials that make up photovoltaic panels, namely with regard to aluminum, tempered glass, EVA (vinyl acetate), silicon and shredded copper, with the larger companies located in the northern region being the ones that most showed this interest.

The recycling of photovoltaic panels is therefore considered critical, and it is essential to analyze industrial symbioses, in order to understand in greater detail the interest of companies in exchanging resources and benefits. The need to value the materials that make up these panels can make manufacturers more responsible for their recovery, contributing to a circular economy, thus reducing the extraction of virgin raw materials.

It was found throughout the study that sharing information is still a real challenge, and it is necessary to boost communication between organizations, reduce business secrecy and promote synergies that, if created, will bring benefits to both parties, whether for society and for the country.

Related Pages

Consulting | Circular Economy


[1] Xu, Y., Li, J., Tan, Q., Peters, A. L., & Yang, C. (2018). Global status of recycling waste solar panels: A review. In Waste Management (Vol. 75).

[2] Gahlot, R., Mir, S., & Dhawan, N. (n.d.). Recycling of Discarded Photovoltaic Solar Modules for Metal Recovery: A Review and Outlook for the Future. Energy & Fuels, 0(0).

[3] DGEG. (2019). PLANO NACIONAL ENERGIA E CLIMA 2021-2030 (PNEC 2030).

[4] DGEG. (2022). FICHA TÉCNICA Título: Estatísticas rápidas das renováveis.

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