The Evolution of Photovoltaic Waste in Europe

With ever increasing measures to encourage the use of renewable energy sources, it can be assumed that solar photovoltaics (PV) will continue to thrive in Europe and worldwide. However, there is an issue that needs to be considered when talking about PV, especially in Europe given the important growth, and this is the waste collection and disposal capacities.

A study on this subject has recently been published by S&T Consulting in partnership with CERES. Seven European countries have been analysed: Belgium, France, Germany, Slovakia, Spain and the United Kingdom. These countries account for over 90 percent of total PV installations in Europe according to the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA), and although they have all benefitted from political incentives encouraging rapid growth in the PV sector, they also represent specificities which make them an interesting panel of countries to examine.

Significant Volumes of PV Waste Begin to Appear

With just over 102 GW of global installed photovoltaic capacity at the end of 2012, the crucial issues regarding waste collection and disposal capacities need to be considered.

PV modules are guaranteed up to 25 years, with this number tending to increase as panels are perfected. Nonetheless, it can already be shown that many users replace their PV installations before the theoretical end of life in order to take advantage of higher yields due to new technological improvements found in more recent modules. CERES’ experience shows an average life span of 17 years for PV modules.

In addition, it can already be noted that installation breakage rates (estimated at 2 percent) and production scrap rates (estimated at 1-2 percent) are important vectors in the production of PV modules needing to be collected and recycled. They are currently generating a very large percentage of decommissioned panels and this will continue over the next few years as the quantity of installed capacities continues to increase.

Based on the installed capacities in Europe and an average life span of 17 years, the volume of photovoltaic waste will exceed 5,500,000 tonnes in 2026 and more than 1 million tonnes of PV waste will need to be collected in 2027 and over 2 million tonnes in 2028.

The study uses EPIA’s installed capacity forecasts for a moderate and policy-driven scenario in order to calculate the PV waste volumes that can be expected until 2018. The moderate scenario produces 15,049 tonnes of waste in the seven countries analysed whereas the policy-driven scenario generates 41,359 tonnes. For the UK, the waste volumes produced by the moderate and policy-driven scenarios are respectively 530 tonnes and 4,020 tonnes. These figures show that the political momentum behind renewables and PV more specifically will play a key role.

The Revised WEEE Directive and Its Impact on PV

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) was modified and the latest version was published in July 2012. For the first time, PV modules are included in the scope of the directive. The modules already represent a significant volume of the total marketed electrical and electronic equipment.

The current regulation defines a collection target of 45 percent of the average of products entering the market over the last three years. However, for a product with an average life span greater than 15 years, these collection obligations cannot be attained and justify derogation objectives for photovoltaic modules. As the directive is currently being transposed in Europe, no clear definition of this derogation has yet emerged.

The WEEE also provides for a systematic selective treatment of some components and hazardous substances contained in electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), as well as re-using, recycling and recovery objectives. Some waste recyclers are already talking about positive waste values being generated from PV modules which could lead to grid parity being achieved faster than expected.

Structuring of Collection and Recycling

There are currently two continental structures for PV waste collection in Europe but national solutions are also available with eco-organisations in some countries. To date approximately 10 percent of potential photovoltaic waste volumes have been collected. Numerous reasons explain this low yield such as no current legal obligations for PV panels to be collected or consumers not being aware of the collection structures that exist.

Waste processing solutions have also seen some improvement from the first techniques used. The initial waste processing solutions consisted of delaminating PV panels. Today, there are more advanced methods and technologies which take into consideration the type of PV panel to be processed. This is one of the reasons why specialised manufacturers are keen to recycle their panels themselves.

The most important barrier in recycling PV panels today remains the cost of this procedure. With no legal obligations to collect, investing in recycling procedures is costly and with only a 10 percent collection rate, the procedures are not financially viable. Today, the most advanced industrialists are able to recycle a PV panel up to 90 percent of its weight. Although technically it is possible to increase this rate, the costs involved outweigh the benefits.

The full version of the study is downloadable at S&T Consulting or CERES.

Lead image: Raw solar cell via Shutterstock