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US recyclers await critical mass in solar panel market

More than 7 million tons of solar panels have been installed in the United States to date. The downside is: recyclers are still trying to find the best way to process them. US firm Recycle PV Solar and European take-back scheme PV Cycle have joined forces to promote best practices and nudge the market in the right direction.

The partnership allows both companies to quickly ramp up nationwide management of decommissioned solar power plants for the collection and treatment of solar panels, and their components. For now, Recycle PV Solar only treats mono-crystalline and poly-crystalline units at its ‘state-of-the-art facility’ in Arizona. It is recycling panels ‘from coast to coast’ with plans to expand operations to three new sites in the US.

Meanwhile, Wood Mackenzie analysts expect installed capacity in the US to hit the 3 million mark in 2021, with an estimated 4 million solar panels installed by 2023.

Recycling decommissioned photovoltaic (PV) modules is still in the start-up phase, laments Jan Clyncke of PV Cycle. He spoke about the latest developments at the recent E-waste World Conference in Frankfurt, Germany. ‘It’s an interesting niche for recyclers for sure. But you could say solar panels are the new kid on the block,’ he observes.

PV Cycle’s Jan Clyncke (left) advocates developing a solar panel ‘materials scorecard’. This would allow recyclers and producers to benchmark the design and recyclability of PV modules.

‘Most people don’t have a clue how to handle flatscreen televisions, let alone solar panels. Cathode ray tubes were a known product. As in all industries, new products require new equipment and a new understanding,’ Clyncke points out.

Even recyclers in California are not yet investing heavily in recycling solutions for PV modules. ‘No one will invest in recycling systems if the operation only runs a couple of days or weeks per year,’ the businessman comments. ‘That’s why the waste volume is not yet interesting to those in the recycling sector. Solar panels are simply not yet piling up, like with regular e-waste.’ Though he urges: ‘Please don’t red-list this new waste stream! Then the solar panel recycling market won’t have a chance to come alive.’

What may boost the future volume of discarded PV panels is the arrival of 5G networks. This requires a bigger energy supply, Clyncke explains. ‘I think we will see solar panel deployment rates double over the next few years. It could result in 1000 PV modules installed per minute.’

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