Circular Economy: From solar panels to bicycle handlebars

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Solar panels can be recycled and the materials used in anything from shoe soles to bicycle handlebars. [Shutterstock]

Solar panels offer clean, cheap and sustainable energy. But the materials they are made of are also valuable. It is essential that the proper strategy is put in place in order to bring the industry into the circular economy, explains Andreas Wade.

Andreas Wade is First Solar’s global director of sustainability. First Solar is a partner of EURACTIV’s forthcoming event on Energy transition in France – What to expect from the new government? on 5 October in Paris.

The idea of a Circular Economy isn’t a novelty in Europe anymore. The construction sector, for instance, recently announced that the recycling of gypsum plates will be a focus area, as the amount of plaster waste increases.Similarly, a recent study found that the steel recycling industry will play a major role in the transition to a circular economy – the reuse of scrap metal will not only save energy and greenhouse gases, but will also create a much-needed competitive advantage for countries that develop a strong steel recycling industry.

But what about the photovoltaic (PV) solar industry? Isn’t solar already inherently sustainable? While solar energy offers a sustainable – and economic – alternative to electricity generated from fossil fuels, the industry is relatively young.

This means that the volume of panels that have reached the end of their operational lives isn’t as high as it will be in a few years.

The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that just five countries – China, the United States, Japan, India, and Germany – will generate between 60 and 78 million tonnes of waste from PV panels by 2050.

And, as with any highly competitive industry that is mainly focused on cost, long-term planning to mitigate the impact of large volumes of decommissioned panels isn’t an obvious priority.

The fact is that PV panels are manufactured using valuable resources, including glass, plastics, rubber laminates, metals, and semiconductor materials such as crystalline silicon or Cad-Tel (CdTe).

While these components are brought together to generate clean, solar electricity for 25-years or more, they also lend themselves to high-value recycling – each component has worth and can be reused when separated from the others at the end of the module’s service life.

Effectively managing this process and shaping it into a regenerative one, will allow the solar PV industry to embrace the Circular Economy.

Enthusiasm for the concept isn’t quite unanimous across the industry, but important benchmarks have already been set. Even as you read this article, someone somewhere is walking around in shoes, whose soles contain rubber that was originally used to laminate a thin film PV module.

Elsewhere, someone is pedalling a bicycle, grasping handles whose rubber was similarly sourced. Likewise, high-quality containers are also being produced from glass sourced from decommissioned PV modules.

What do they all have in common? First Solar’s high-value recycling program, which is unique to the module manufacturing industry in terms of its scale and innovation.

Recycling recovery rate of more than 90%

While the automotive sector manages to recycle 75% of the weight of an average vehicle, and the Information Technology industry manages a recycling ratio of 45%, we are proud to have achieved 90%. This not only translates into commonly-used glass, rubber, and plastic products; it creates a regenerative source of our semiconductor material – CdTe.

With a recovery rate of more than 90%, just one kilogramme of our semiconductor can be reused 41 times to generate two gigawatt-hours of clean energy, while displacing 1,100 metric tonnes of carbon-dioxide over 1,230 years, before it becomes insufficient to coat one of our panels.

Significantly, the semiconductor is itself a stable compound produced from the byproducts of zinc and copper mining; it safely sequesters these materials, their unique, combined semiconductor properties, used to create high-performance PV modules.

Decouple growth from resource depletion

But even this is not enough. While we have invested extensively in high-value recycling technology, our objective is to close the loop and eventually be able to produce high-quality recycled glass with all the optical properties that are essential to the performance of our modules.

And the question we often get asked is, why is this important? The fact is that driving a circular economy will be as important as contributing to the energy transition. It will also be critical to the industry’s long-term resource resilience.

In fact, a recent assessment conducted by the European Commission confirmed the need for secondary resource strategies to be put in place for materials that are fundamental to the PV industry: silicon, silver and indium.

The absence of these strategies could create bottlenecks in the deployment of low-carbon technologies, the study concluded.

The industry cannot hide behind the ‘clean’ label in the long-run, especially as larger volumes of panels are decommissioned.

Every year, Earth Overshoot Day – the date on which humanity’s resource consumption for the year exceeds the planet’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year – moves earlier, and earlier.

As solar energy shakes off the ‘New Energy’ tag and becomes a ubiquitous element of the global energy generation portfolio, the industry must step-up and address its responsibilities, ultimately striving to decouple its growth from the reality of resource depletion.