Solar Photovoltaic Panels and the End-of-Life Management: the importance of recycling for a sustainable energy economy.
In the photovoltaic market, the end-of-life management is particularly important to ensure that clean energy solutions are sustainable over time. In fact, in order to allow a complete energy transition, reducing the amount of waste and at the same time giving value to that waste, it’s of fundamental importance to allow the recycling and the reuse of materials wherever possible, to promote a circular and a sustainable economy model.
Like many other durable products and building materials, solar equipment can last for decades: the life span of a photovoltaic solar panel is in fact about 20-30 years. However, thanks to a proper maintenance, in some cases it can be reused or renewed further to have a "second life" and to keep generating electricity.
The topic is adequately addressed at a regulatory level in Europe and Italy, both to limit the environmental impact of the disposing of solar panels and to severely punish any offenders.
Specifically, according to the Legislative Decree. n. 49/2014 ("Implementation of Directive 2012/19/EU on waste electrical and electronic equipment), photovoltaic panels, as they fall under the WEEE category, must be delivered to specialized operators (so-called consortia) who must manage their recycling process, extracting the maximum reusable resources from them. The GSE itself is responsible for verifying that these requirements are met on the incentivised plants.
Currently, in our continent more than 90% of the panels have been recycled, thanks to the continuous studies of new and more efficient processes for disposal. Italy, where special consortia for the treatment of electronic and electrical waste are particularly active, with about 2 thousand tons of panels sent for recycling between 2010 and 2015, is in second place, after Germany.
What is the recycling process?
A typical PV module, weighing 20-25 kilos, consists of: an aluminum frame (about 10% of the weight), a glass plate (another 80% of the weight) on which the photovoltaic cells and the electrical contacts are placed and where the last ones are then heat-sealed by a plastic sheet.
The first phase of the recycling process consists in mechanically detaching the glass from the plastic sheet, recovering it. At a later stage, a special machine will brush away the other components still attached, finely chopping the remaining material which will be passed through a series of air-blown sieves and cyclones, and where the various materials will be separated according to their density.
The recycling process produces plastic powder, copper and silver from the electrical contacts and of course silicon. All the components mentioned are reusable, bringing the recycling rate of a photovoltaic module to 95% or more. In addition, in the context of an economy increasingly oriented towards sustainability, the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of photovoltaic technology, which leads to an Energy Payback Time (EPBT) of less than two years, deserves attention. This means that the energy used for the production of a photovoltaic system is recovered in less than 2 years, thus allowing zero-emission energy production for about 30 years.