The global solar boom has been contributing a whole new form of electronic waste to the planet, but so far little has been done to recover and recycle the precious metals and other goodies that go into manufacturing solar panels. Blame the usual suspects, including a lack of international standards and end-of-life infrastructure.

However, with the potential for a $15 billion market by 2050 dangling in the air, it’s a safe bet that the solar panel recycling industry will take off sooner rather than later.

Solar Panel Recycling Numbers Don’t Add Up…

A couple of years ago, National Geographic took a look at
solar panel lifecycle issues from raw materials to manufacturing, and on into e-waste.

The article described how and why very little solar panel recycling has been going on, and it identified the problem in a nutshell:

There aren’t enough places to recycle old solar panels, and there aren’t enough defunct solar panels to make recycling them economically attracti

That’s about to change in a big way.

…But They Will Eventually

A new solar panel recycling report from IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency, anticipates that a rapid increase in the number of decommissioned solar panels by 2050 will provide the recycling industry with a platform for growth.

The whole thing is available for download under the title End-of-Life Management: Solar Photovoltaic Panels, but for those of you on the go it can be summed up like this:

If fully injected back into the economy, the value of the recovered material could exceed USD 15 billion by 2050. This potential material influx could produce 2 billion new panels or be sold into global commodity markets, thus increasing the security of future PV supply or other raw material-dependent p

IRENA bases its projection on the potential for the number of decommissioned solar panels to total 78 million tonnes (that’s about 86 million US tons) by 2050.

The agency notes that global installed capacity has already topped 222 gigawatts, with a total of 4,500 expected by 2050. Taking into consideration a 30-year lifespan, that’s a lot of solar panels to recycle.

The report urges laying the groundwork now for the solar panel recycling industry of tomorrow, by taking a few pages from the e-wastemanagement book. That includes:

…the adoption of effective, PV-specific waste regulation; the expansion of existing waste management infrastructure to include end-of-life treatment of PV panels, and; the promotion of ongoing innovation in panel waste management.

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