Recycled PV materials could possess $15bn value by 2050, finds IRENA, IEA-PVPS report

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A report published this week by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency’s Photovoltaic Power Systems Program (IEA-PVPS) called End-of-Life Management: Solar Photovoltaic Panels estimates that PV panel waste volumes in 2050 could be worth $15 billion on global commodity markets, provided proper recycling and repurposing of materials is carried out.

The report finds that the potential material influx provided by the estimated 78 million tonnes of PV waste by 2050 could produce two billion new panels, and thus increase the security of future PV supply or other raw material-dependent products.

According to projections calculated by IRENA and the IEA-PVPS, global installed PV capacity could rise to 4,500 GW by 2050. If PV panel waste by that date was fully injected back into the economy, then solar could boast one of the most robust ‘closed-loop’ business models around.

However, to seize these opportunities, IRENA director-general Adnan Z. Amin said that the industry should begin preparing for the surge in end-of-life materials now.

"With the right policies and enabling frameworks in place, new industries that recycle and repurpose old solar PV panels will drive considerable economic value creation and will be an important element in the world’s transition to a sustainable energy future," said Amin.

To reach these projections, the industry must adopt greater PV-specific waste regulation, expand existing waste management infrastructure to include end-of-life treatment of PV panels, and promote ongoing innovation in panel waste management, the report suggests.

Stefan Nowak, chairman of IEA-PVPS, said that their organization’s own experience with electronic waste has taught them that developing technological and regulatory systems designed for efficient and affordable end-of-life management requires long lead times.

"This report can be used by public and private sector institutions to anchor the necessary investments in technology and policy research and development and supporting analyses to unlock the significant recoverable value in end-of-life panels," he said. "Responsible life-cycle management is an imperative for all PV technologies – the socio-economic and environmental benefits which can potentially be unlocked through end-of-life processes and policies for this waste stream in the future should be seen as an opportunity today to start extending the photovoltaic value chain."

The European Union (EU) has already introduced PV-specific waste regulation requiring all panel producers that supply modules to the EU market to finance the costs of collecting and recycling end-of-life PV panels put on the market in Europe. However, such schemes beyond the EU are few and far between.