Solar photovoltaic panels: the other side of the story

Solar photovoltaic panels: the other side of the story

Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels have now reached a stage of rapid dissemination and global commercialization. Relatively small and robust, they only need exposure to sunlight in order to produce electricity. Since the 1990s, when it started to be commercially used in Europe, solar PV power has been electrifying millions of households globally and is bringing energy access to a large number of remote communities in less developed countries.

Rural electrification through PV technology is proving to be a success in developing countries. As part of its work in support of inclusive and sustainable industrial development, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) promotes energy access for productive uses, and is currently implementing solar photovoltaic projects in countries like Cabo Verde, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, India, the Maldives, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Provided with solar power, locals in areas that cannot be reached by national grids are given the chance to increase their living standards and further develop their local businesses. They use the electricity provided by solar panels installed by UNIDO in their communities to power ICT or refrigeration equipment. Thanks to this new source of off-grid clean energy, they can add value to their economic activities.

Watch: Zambia – Renewable Energy

Solar PV has clear benefits. More, better and cheaper panels are being distributed, installed and used globally, benefiting both people and the environment. In 2014 alone, solar companies invested USD 63.9 million in off-grid solar panels. From 2011 to 2012, the World Bank implemented a total of 114 solar panel projects globally. But what happens when panels are no longer useful? 

Read: Renewables 2014 Global Status Report

Clean energy?

A solar panel will last, in average, from 20 to 25 years. Newer versions can be used for up to 40 years, but this longer life span is less common. Every year, their efficiency degrades by about 0.5%, and batteries and inverters have to be replaced periodically. In addition, photovoltaic companies are constantly developing and producing new improved panels, inviting customers to upgrade and replace their outdated versions.

What happens to solar panels and related equipment (e.g. batteries, inverters) when they are no longer in use? Is used and discarded solar equipment detrimental to the environment? 

The case of Bangladesh presents a clear example of the importance of the issue. To provide electricity for households in rural areas not connected to the national grid, in 2003 the government-owned Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL) began the solar home system (SHS) programme. The basic SHS is a 250-watt solar panel which when installed on the roof of an individual home can produce up to 1 kilowatt of power a day. With financial assistance from the World Bank and other development partners, IDCOL runs the scheme with 47 partners, including non-governmental organizations and businesses.

By the end of 2014, 3.5 million households – about 10 per cent of the country’s total – had installed SHS. "Every month, 50,000-60,000 Bangladeshi households are connected with a solar home system,” Mahmood Malik, head of IDCOL, recently told Reuters

Grameen Shakti, one of the non-governmental organizations implementing the SHS project, was established in 1996. At the end of 2012, the organization celebrated the installation of SHS in one million households. Asked about what will happen to the solar panels once they stop working and are discarded, Abser Kamal, Grameen Shakti’s managing director, said, “Although the life span of a solar module is about 25 years, there will be a big environmental concern for us in the near future.”

As Kamal recognizes, those panels installed in the 1990s will start to reach the end of their life span in the coming years. Already in 2012, a report by GlobalData estimated that 25,000 tons of solar PV panel waste was expected by 2025, and by 2035 this could increase to over a million tons.

Read: As Solar Power Advances, Disposal Will Become an Issue

Little is known about the environmental impact that used panels and related equipment will have. Like other types of electronic waste (e-waste), solar panels contain potentially dangerous materials, including silicon tetrachloride, selenium, sulfur hexafluoride, which is a potent greenhouse gas, and cadmium, which can mutate the DNA. And like other types of e-waste, used solar panels are often sent to developing countries, where adequate recycling infrastructure is scarce and legislation regulating the methods of disposal is either non-existent or is not enforced, posing both environmental and health threats.

Sheila Davids, Executive Director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), stresses that the electronics industry is already facing a waste crisis, where “much of the generated waste is dumped in developing countries and recycled under inhumane working conditions. We don’t want the solar industry to follow this path.”

Read: The global impact of e-waste: addressing the challenge 

What can be done

Gradually, policies are being implemented to regulate e-waste treatment. In all EU countries, since February 2014, collecting, transporting and treating or recycling PV panels is being regulated. In 2012, SVTC developed a scorecard that evaluates PV producers according to environmental standards, worker health and safety and company disclosure statements. 

The responsibility, many believe, lies with the producer who should be in charge of planning the entire product life cycle: from design and production to disposal and treatment. Already in the design phase, all possible efforts should be made to create panels for easy recycling with less toxic materials.

“The solar industry can get ahead of the waste problem by designing their products so that they can be easily recycled and investing in recycling infrastructure so that panels can be safely recycled in the regions where they are sold,” says SVTC Executive Director Davids. 

There is a clear profit in recycling solar panels. Depending on the type of panel, up to 90% of materials like glass, metals and silicon can be recycled into useful products, including new PV products. The US company, First Solar, was the first to implement a pre-funded module-recycling programme that meets global standards thanks to which up to 95% of the cadmium telluride material and 90% of the glass in solar panels is reused for new products.

Whilst recycling is still not the first priority for organizations promoting the use of solar energy for development, efforts are gradually being made to introduce the concept. “The challenge in some developing countries, and particularly in Africa, is that the PV market is still very small, and the wider waste problem is still to be dealt with. We implement projects in countries where collection and recycling of even normal waste is not the norm,” says Martin Lugmayr, UNIDO Sustainable Energy Expert, in the context of UNIDO’s renewable energy projects.

“Recycling PV panels and related equipment, though, is an opportunity UNIDO could look into. We help countries develop local value chains in the sustainable energy industry, and recycling could be considered as a part of the entire value chain.” The earlier the issue is addressed jointly by all actors involved, the more prepared the PV industry will be to face the increase in waste expected in the years to come. 

By Laura Gil Martínez
Posted April 2015

Further reading:

Are solar panels the next e-waste?

Solar is booming but solar parks could have unintended climate consequences

Helping Latin America meet its e-waste challenge 

Record boost in new solar power continues massive industry growth