Photovoltaic technologies as a reservoir of valuable materials

Published on Friday, 22 April 2022

Solar energy is having its best moment. In recent years, the cost reduction of solar power installations has made this technology more accessible than ever before, leading to an exponential increase in its use. This technology and others that drive the modern world depend mainly on the availability of raw materials, which are becoming increasingly scarce. Therefore, countries need to design a development strategy that considers the requirements of critical raw materials while innovating solutions to extend assets' useful life and recover valuable materials, as in the case of solar photovoltaic energy.


By 2020, an estimated solar generation capacity of 744.6 GW had been installed worldwide. According to a recent report by the International Renewable Energy Agency, that figure could reach 4,500 GW by 2050. Chile has stood out in recent years for its fast integration of solar photovoltaic technology, accounting for 53% of the installed capacity based on NCRE technologies. Today in 2022, there are 4.3 GW of photovoltaic projects connected to the National Electric System, which will reach 8 GW of installed capacity by 2023, considering the projects currently under construction. [1]This figure will increase consistently in the coming years.


However, power-generating solar panels do not last forever. The industry expected lifespan is 25 to 30 years, which means that some early installed panels will soon need to be removed. [2].


The study carried out by the Chilean Ministry of Energy, "Alternatives for the treatment of photovoltaic modules after their useful life," projected that the first modules would reach the end of their useful life in the coming years. The study includes the modules used in solar plants and those used for Netbilling (self-generation), with a peak of around 4 million units by 2031.


Generally, the PV module industry guarantees its performance for 25 years. The study shows modules may continue operating at the end of the warranty with an 80% performance. [2] Therefore, if removed from the generation plant, they could be reused, reducing waste generation associated with photovoltaic modules. For example, they could be used to contribute to the energy development of communities.


At some point, however, all panels will reach the end of their useful life and will have to be removed. It is vital to know the materials that make up a solar panel, such as copper, silver, silicon, glass, and aluminum, to measure their potential to be recovered and valued in the market. It is worth mentioning that glass and aluminum, when they are in their pure state in a solar panel, allow reaching close to 100% of their recoverability. [2].


This imminent growth of photovoltaic panel waste presents a new challenge that we must solve on an environmental level. Still, it also gives us unprecedented opportunities to create value and seek new local development opportunities. IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency) highlights that recycling or reusing solar panels at the end of their useful life can unlock a stock of 78 million tons of raw materials and other valuable components globally by 2050. If reinjected into the economy, the value of the recovered material could exceed USD 15 billion. [3].






But to take advantage of these benefits, it is necessary to develop adequate infrastructure, install new local capacities, and a regulation that promotes a circular economy essential to accompany the country's energy transition.


Globally, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the solar industry is creating programs to train commercial recyclers to understand the materiality of these products and how to separate them. However, undoubtedly there is still a long way to go.


Particularly in Chile, in 2020, the Extended Producer Responsibility Law (REP) was published, which makes manufacturers and importers of six priority products responsible for recovering a percentage of them once they fulfill their purpose in the value chain. These products include solar panels. Therefore, companies will need to innovate and collaborate to comply with this new law, which is expected to generate thousands of new jobs in the country.


In line with this national challenge, Enel Green Power Chile is currently collaborating on a public project with the Ministry of Energy, the University of Antofagasta, and other leading national figures. The undertaking aims to generate protocols and technical and economic standards to enable the second life industry of photovoltaic modules in power generation and construction applications.


Solar technology is undoubtedly a pioneer in moving towards a truly sustainable model. But we must not forget that there are less than ten years left to rethink a circular economy strategy to address this challenge sustainably in Chile.









[1] "ERNC Report - CNE 02/2022".


[2] I.-D. and. R. Ministry of Energy, "Study "Treatment alternatives for photovoltaic modules after their useful life," 2020.


[3] RENA, "End-of-Life Management: Photovoltaic Solar Panels," 2016