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Double Green – Extended Producer Responsibility in the Solar Industry

Updated on July 3, 2012
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How sustainable is PV

It is a little bit like calling an electric vehicle “zero emission” car. Considering where the electricity to charge the car in most cases comes from, it is far from zero. I absolutely think EV and hybrid cars are great, and any approach to help reduce pollution should be pursued, it’s just the impression of the label. However, at least there is a possibility that the source of that electricity is not fossil fuel, but some renewable energy power plant. So back to the topic, is photovoltaic technology the mother of all green energy?

Life Cycle Assessment

A study about “Emissions from Photovoltaic Lifecycles” was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology in 2008 and is available for download. It is an assessment of the environmental impact of four major types, monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and ribbon Silicon, as well as Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) thin film PV cells during their whole life cycle. This includes, e.g., purification of the Silicon and CdTe and electricity used for the production of the modules and BOS (balance of system components like inverters, batteries, wiring, mounts, etc.). Heavy metal, toxic gas, and green house gas emissions mainly result from the production process, but even with all those emissions taken into account, the study in short showed that replacing grid electricity with central PV systems would still have great environmental benefits (with around 90% reduction of emissions for CdTe cells).

Afterlife

Photovoltaic panels have a life expectancy of an estimated 25 to 30 years. Reaching the end-of-life poses the questions of what will happen with the fast growing number of no more functioning PV panels? Estimates talk between 18 000 to 35 000 t of PV waste in 2020 in Europe. Solar panels consist of a number of materials (mostly glass, aluminum, copper, semiconductor material), which are valuable and perfect for recycling, and efforts are slowly being made to address this issue.

Arizona CdTe thin film producer First Solar was the first company to offer a module collection and recycle program and to implement extended producer responsibility (EPR). EPR is a strategy, which holds the manufacturer responsible for the whole cycle of their product. It is an important measure, when it comes to reduce the excessive amount of electronic waste, for example. In this case, the price for the modules already includes estimated pickup and recycling costs by setting aside a special fund. In a nutshell, the CdTe semiconductor is separated from the glass, with a recycling rate of 95% for the semiconductor material and 90% for the glass. Abound Solar located in Colorado, was another US thin film manufacturer, who took on responsibility. Like First Solar, the consumer just needed to uninstall the panel and place it in the provided packaging material. They filed for bankruptcy in June 2012, blaming Chinese competition. They also were member of PV CYCLE, a 2007 founded European non-profit organization dedicated to voluntary collecting and recycling of all sorts of PV technologies. The association’s members and recycling partners aim for a recycling rate of 80% in 2015. The largest PV manufacturer in the US, Solarworld, claims on their website that they are the “first to fully recycle crystalline PV modules” and have pioneered their recycling program. PV Recycling LLC is an Arizona company and goes a different way, as they specialize in collecting and solar recycling as a third party recycler.

Voluntary is better than nothing - for now

Those are all steps in the right direction to make solar technologies ‘double green’, but there is still the lack of governmental regulations. Right now it seems to be mostly in the hands of the responsible consumer to choose high quality PV panels from an innovative company over cheap, low quality dumping products.

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