As countries accelerate their shift to renewable energy and install more solar energy systems, some crucial questions arise: What would happen to all these PV modules when they get decommissioned? Solar is a sustainable source of energy, but can we sustainably manage end-of-life (EOL) PV modules? In this post, we explain different end-of-life options for PV modules.
Some PV modules get replaced or decommissioned before reaching their end-of-life. Some are even operational after their general lifespan of 25-30 years. If decommissioned PV modules are in good condition, they could get a second life. Reuse of PV modules generally involves steps such as cleaning, inspection, refurbishment and efficiency test. Especially for early retired modules that are still functional, reuse should be the first option to explore.
For those PV modules that cannot be reused, recycling comes as the next option. There are many reasons to recycle PV modules; not only can we reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfills, but we can also recover valuable materials, such as aluminum, silver, copper and polysilicon, as well as toxic chemicals like lead. Solar recycling technology is still developing, and the high recycling cost remains a challenge. However, with more companies entering the market, new recycling technologies have been emerging in recent years.
The sad reality is that a great number of PV modules are landfilled today. It is likely because, in many parts of the world, landfilling is cheap and does not require complicated steps seen in reuse and recycling options. Some regions — like the European Union, California and Washington state — have PV-specific waste regulations in place to facilitate the recycling of PV modules. But in many places, additional efforts need to be made to avert waste PV modules from landfills. The land is finite, and landfills across the world are filling up fast. Not to mention, solar panels contain toxic chemicals such as lead and valuable materials like silver. Needless to say, landfilling should be avoided at all costs if we want to pursue environmentally friendly and sustainable end-of-life options for PV modules.
In some cases, retired PV modules are stored. However, not only does storage take up space, but it also incurs storage costs. Furthermore, given the increasing deployment of solar PV, securing adequate storage space may become a future challenge. Most importantly, by storing still-operational PV modules, a potential opportunity to use them as secondhand modules, and to generate revenue, is lost.
It is common knowledge that solar energy is good for the environment. But if we want to make solar energy truly sustainable and environmentally friendly, we need to transform the solar energy industry from a linear to a circular economy model.