A solar panel's life cycle is generally around 30 years before it will need to be replaced, 25 of those years are usually covered by the manufacturer's warranty. Even after this time, the panels may still be creating electricity but the efficiency drops as they age until they are no longer producing enough energy. The degradation of solar panels is between 05.% and 0.8% per year however as technology improves this is becoming even less and warranty lengths are increasing to reflect this.
As we move to the end of the panel's life it is time to consider how these inefficient panels are disposed of. This process needs to remain in the best interests of the planet, otherwise what was the point of installing renewable energy in the first place. The idea of a circular economy is extremely important in today's society that is hyper-aware of our impacts on the environment.
The below graphic shows the processes used in Europe to recycle solar panels after their efficient years:
As shown above, almost all parts of the decommissioned solar panels can be broken down and recycled or reused. With technology improvements, it is likely that PV panels will become even more sustainably made and components that are unable to be recycled are removed entirely. This continual improvement will help to keep more waste from landfills and further reduce clean energy's impact on the environment in its creation and decommissioning life phases.
Our country is often reliant on others when it comes to recycling, with over 11,000 tonnes of recycled plastic going to Malaysia and Thailand each year. However, as we have seen due to the pandemic it is becoming difficult and expensive to ship things overseas. Thus recycling here may be more cost-effective now, as well as providing more jobs for Kiwis.
However, the question still remains as to who the responsibility sits with for PV recycling. The user, the manufacturer, or the country that encourages its uptake to meet its own climate change goals? Schemes such as the PV Cycle network put this onto the manufacturer and it sees PV waste returned to them to be processed back into new products. However, it is also argued that policies are needed to ensure a circular economy is successful. This ensures recycling of PV waste at the end of its life occurs rather than it going to landfill and that the entire energy sector is held accountable throughout the panel's lifespan.
As New Zealand is yet to install solar energy on the same scale as other countries, we have not accumulated the same level of panel waste. As solar installs increase, we can replicate processes from overseas and be better prepared. By beginning planning for the decommissioning of panels now we can ensure we are able to do this in an efficient way in future. Likely this will be with joint responsibility and the aid of legislation to ensure we maintain the clean, green NZ image throughout the lifespan of our solar panels.