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Outlook for Recycling of Solar Photovoltaic Modules

By David Wagger, Chief Scientist, ISRI

By invitation, ISRI staff attended a recent technical symposium of the Utilities Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG) to provide a perspective on recycling of renewable energy systems, especially solar photovoltaic (PV) modules. USWAG focuses on waste, chemical, and byproduct issues of the utility industry, and its membership includes electric and gas utilities and their trade associations. USWAG’s interest in recycling of solar PV arises from electric utilities’ near-term desire to upgrade existing utility-scale solar PV farms with new, more-efficient solar PV modules, as well as their longer-term concerns about decommissioning of solar PV farms. Such upgrading will cause removal of extremely large numbers of older solar PV modules in the near term because of the expected operational incompatibility between older and new PV modules. These older PV modules will likely be taken out of service long before they have reach their expected useful lifetime (typically 30 years).

Given this likelihood, electric utilities are very interested in recycling or reuse of these used (and still usable) older solar PV modules. Electric utilities are also concerned about large numbers of solar PV modules that may be damaged by extreme weather events, which have occurred in recent years. However, not much is known about recycling or reuse options for large numbers of solar PV modules in the near term. Because solar PV modules are getting cheaper per peak watt and more-efficient, domestic on-grid reuse applications for older solar PV modules are challenging; however, domestic off-grid and international reuse might be viable. Recycling of solar PV modules seems operationally suitable for electronics recycling facilities; however, the economics and downstream markets are presently uncertain.

According to a 2016 report by IRENA on end-of-life management, large numbers of solar PV modules should be reaching end of use (if not end of life) in the next 5-10 years. The Electric Power Research Institute issued a similar report last December, stating “PV module collection and recycling infrastructure is not well established in the United States, challenging plant owners with responsibility as waste generators. At the time of this writing, module recycling is occurring on a limited basis.”  The Solar Energy Industries Association maintains a National PV Recycling Program with six approved partners. The Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office and National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are developing projects on solar PV module recycling. NREL has reached out to ISRI to collaborate. The available information suggests that recycling and reuse options need to be developed very soon to be ready for the expected large wave of solar PV modules coming out of service, whether or not reusable, in the next 5-10 years.

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