The problem of how to make renewables renewable

 In Green Energy, News

Solar panels are vital in reducing carbon emissions, but this green energy is also providing an environmental headache – how can they be recycled?

“They have a lifespan of only up to 25 years, so billions of panels will need to be disposed of and replaced in the next few years,” said Midlands energy expert Ron Fox.

“The problem is the specialist infrastructure to scrap and recycle them is lacking,” said Ron, of Noreus Ltd, which is based at Keele University’s Science and Innovation Park.

He said the reason there are so few facilities for recycling solar panels in the UK is because there has not been much waste to process and reuse until recently.

With the first generation of domestic solar panels only now coming to the end of their usable life, experts are calling for urgent government action to prevent a looming global environmental disaster.

“The International Renewable Energy Agency predicts there will be a waste mountain of 30,000 tonnes of solar panels by 2030 and more than 200 million tonnes globally by 2050, so we need get plans to recycle them as soon as possible,” added Ron.

To put that figure into perspective, the world now produces a total of 400 million tonnes of plastic every year.

And this problem will only get worse. The UK Government has published an updated British Energy Security Strategy to reach net zero emissions in which it sets an ambitious goal to increase solar capacity to 70GW by 2035, five times what it is at present.

Ron said one of the major reasons people were turning to solar energy was to reduce their carbon footprint, and so they expect their systems to be disposed of efficiently environmentally and not just thrown away.

Recycling the solar panels was vital to the industry, he added. It not only avoided adding to landfill but it was becoming greener by re-using the glass fronts and aluminium frames, as well as recovering precious materials in the solar panels such as copper and silver which are typically some of the hardest items to extract.

Silver is particularly vital as there is not enough of this metal available at the moment to build the millions of solar panels which will be required in the move away from fossil fuels.

“To put it in context,” said Ron, “more than 60 per cent of the value of a solar panel is contained in its metals which are just 3 per cent of the weight,” he said.

Re-using the solar panel materials will also cut out production delays and reduce the environmental impact of having to extract new raw materials for the world’s increasing appetite for solar, he added.

But there is already one piece of good news. Now, there are more efficient designs coming on the market, so it can prove cheaper to replace uneconomical solar panels that are only 10 or 15 years old with updated versions.

One country helping solve this problem is France which last July opened the world’s first factory dedicated to fully recycling solar panels.

ROSI, the specialist solar recycling company which owns the facility in the Alpine city of Grenoble, hopes eventually to be able to re-use 99 per cent of a unit’s components.

“I know there are some facilities in the UK that can recycle solar panels, but we’re going to need many more to help hit net zero,” concluded Ron. “I hope the government treats this problem as a matter of urgency.”

For more advice on green energy, installing solar panels and cutting energy bills contact Ron Fox, on 01782 756995.

Caption: Highlighting the problem of reusing reusable solar panels.

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