Solar modules now officially regarded as e-waste

30. January 2012 | Industry & Suppliers, Markets & Trends, Products | By:  Elke Kuehnle

The EU Parliament has officially changed the guidelines for its WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) Directive. Under the amendments, used photovoltaic modules must now be collected and recycled.

First Solar photovoltaic panels

First Solar already has a photovoltaic module take back and recycling program in place.

Having found the commitment for the take back and recycling of photovoltaic modules by the solar industry too lax, the EU Parliament, on January 18, in Strasbourg, France, officially voted for the collection of 85 percent of all end-of-life photovoltaic modules in Europe. Meanwhile, 80 percent must be recycled. As such, modules are now included under the WEEE Directive’s category four (Consumer Equipment and Photovoltaic Panels).

Although the new law still needs the final seal of approval from the EU Council, it is considered a mere formality. A spokesperson told pv magazine that the law has already been given internal approval by the council, but still needs to be officially recognized. It is, however, considered a "point without discussion", i.e. that it will be passed at a meeting held within the next couple of months. The meeting does not have to deal with the environment. 

Implementation

The WEEE Directive requires all EU member states to implement the new law no later than 18 months after it comes into effect.

The amended regulations stipulate that modules must be collected separately. They also recommend that, in particular, modules should be separated from other electrical products. Meanwhile, it is believed that existing collection and recycling structures should be strengthened and expanded.

Issues

The final photovoltaic module collection quota is still not clear, due to the fact that the amount of end-of-lifetime modules is anticipated to be very low over the next few years, and because the lifetime of modules typically extends to between 20 to 30 years. It is also still essential to differentiate between "collection rate" and "recycling rate".

In terms of general module recycling, several thousand tons of photovoltaic modules have been collected by the PV Cycle association, thus far. Thin film manufacturer, First Solar, also has its own take back and recycling program in place. In terms of calculations, looking at the amount of installed modules in Germany over the past two years, for example, – around 15 gigawatts (GW) – it is clear that this will return around 1.5 million tons of scrap modules, when based on an estimated module weight of 100 tons per megawatt.

According to Reinhold Buttgereit, secretary general of EPIA, the European Photovoltaic Industry Association, "In order to reflect the very long lifetime of PV panels and the recent appearance of PV markets in Europe, an individual collection target for PV panels should be based on the quantities of end-of-life PV panels available." He added, "The PV industry is ready to support the European Commission in establishing the methodology for a waste-generated approach."

For industry association, PV Cycle, which organizes the take back and recycling of used modules in 27 member states, the WEEE Directive amendments mean that it must transform itself from a voluntary industry association into a service provider for the photovoltaic industry.

How concrete this new role is, however, is still uncertain. "As with refrigerators and mobile phones, the keys to success of collection and return are a simple design and wide-area focused infrastructure. PV Cycle is currently working with around 200 registered collection points across Europe, and our network continues to grow," commented PV Cycle spokeswoman, Pia Alina Lange.

With regards to the new WEEE Directive, the association says it will continue to offer its "service package, which includes the transport, recycling of old modules and related financing".

There is room for discussion until the end of 2012, which allows individual countries to offer up their ideas and suggestions on how to prepare for the change.

Already PV Cycle and the European Photovoltaics Industry Association have issued a statement urging "European policymakers to use the possibility foreseen in the Directive to set an individual collection target for PV panels." They add that it is "crucial to avoid an excessive variety of implementing measures at national level, which could jeopardise results achieved so far".

In the February edition of pv magazine, out on Wednesday, PV Cycle's Jan Clyncke provides an update on the state of the association's recycling program.

Translated and edited by Becky Stuart


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