By Rubi Rodriguez Mendoza
Solar has grown at unprecedented rates since the early 2000s. Global PV installed capacity reached 222 GW at the end of 2015, yet it is still expected to rise to 4,500 GW by 2050. In the U.S., the current PV installed capacity is 27 GW and it is forecast to reach 600GW by 2050, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. This is great for consumers and for the environment. However, everything we manufacture does generate waste, even PV. PV panels are very durable, with few moving parts, so they last a long time, 30 years or more, according to SolarCity. But the growth in the PV industry will increase PV waste in the next 20-30 years in the world. The good news is that most PV components can be recycled. Recycling of PV panels is just taking off in the US, but Europe has set standards and best practices the US can also adopt.
How Components are Recycled
Photovoltaic panels consist of layers of glass, encapsulant EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate), silicon wafers and metallic conductors connected to a junction box. These components are mechanically and chemically separated during the recycling process and returned to manufacturers for incorporation into new products. You can read a detailed description of the recycling process here.
Europe & US Regulations
The extent to which the PV panels are recycled is closely tied with regulations that foster environmental practices in the solar industry. For instance PV Cycle, a European non-profit organization founded in 2007, works closely with governments and companies in the private sector to establish PV waste management strategies and legal compliance for companies and waste producers. PV Cycle partners with industries and governments to reduce the environmental impact of end-life PV panels and to require recycling to be the responsibility of producers. Currently, it is collaborating with manufacturing companies to adopt a design-for-recycling mindset so that PVs are easier and cheaper to recycle.
By contrast, the U.S. is just starting to develop policies and regulations for PV recycling. In October of 2015, California updated its Photovoltaic Panel Collection and Recycling Act of 2014 to require that “a PV panel producer shall establish and operate a take-back program for the collection, transportation, recovery, and environmentally sound recycling of end-of-life PV panels.” There may come a day when recycling PV panels will be enough of an economic opportunity, as new infrastructure for waste management emerges, that it won’t be so dependent on regulations, according to a report by IRENA.
Recycling Opportunities for the Future
Given that cumulative end-of-life PV waste volume in the U.S. is expected to grow from 6,500 tons at the end of 2016 to 7.5 to 10 million tons by 2050, a big opportunity for growth of the PV recycling market exists. For instance, First Solar, one of the few U.S.-based companies to do PV recycling, could likely benefit from this trend by creating more recycling sites in the country or increasing the recycling capacity of its sites.
Countries that foresee growth in their PV markets need to develop policies and markets to address the environmental impact of future PV waste volume. Programs like PV Cycle and regulations such as the California Recycling Act are a good foundation to make necessary improvements. PV waste management will absolutely be a challenge in the coming years. Therefore we need to find synergy between the different parties involved in the PV market, including science, technology, business and policy, in order to reduce the negative environmental impact of end-of-life PV panels.
The New Buildings Institute recently recognized Point Energy Innovations as a Zero Net Energy (ZNE) leader for work on ZNE schools in California.
“Point Energy Innovations (PEI) is a leader in driving schools toward ZNE,” NBI said.
“The firm’s design of the Newcastle Elementary School, under the Prop 39 ZNE School Retrofit Pilot Program, went well beyond a simple retrofit coupled with massive photovoltaics. The team relentlessly pursued deep green measures achieving an energy use intensity of 16 (saving 36%), providing cost-effective ZNE as a package, and a healthier, quality environment for students and teachers.”
The Prop 39 ZNE School Retrofit Pilot Program provides state funding to public schools and community colleges to improve energy efficiency and increase their use of clean energy.
By Ethan Heil
Renewable energy could save over 5 million lives each year.
That’s the takeaway from a recent meeting among Stanford University Professor, Mark Jacobson and the Point Energy Innovations team.
Jacobson, notably, has led a research effort detailing how 139 countries – representing 95% of all carbon emissions, worldwide – could transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050. His research provides a way forward in light of growing international concern over a changing climate and the recent signing of the Paris Agreement – a historic commitment among 195 countries agreeing to limit greenhouse gas emissions and reduce global warming. The keystone component for meeting these ambitious emissions reductions requires a shift away from conventional, carbon-intensive energy sources based on coal, oil and natural gas combustion.
The climate benefits of carbon-free, renewable energy have been well-documented, but Jacobson suggests that the human health benefits are just as great, if not greater than, the far-reaching environmental benefits. The combustion of fossil fuels to power our cars, homes and offices releases particles and pollutants into the atmosphere. These emissions in turn contribute to 5.5 million premature air pollution deaths annually at a cost of $15-25 trillion each year (in addition to the costs associated with climate change).
Recognizing that buildings account for one third of our planet’s energy consumption, Jacobson and the Point Energy team discussed the crucial role of net zero energy buildings in enabling a cleaner, healthier and more renewable future. Net zero energy buildings produce at least as much energy as they consume. Green design practices in conjunction with on-site renewable energy provide an opportunity to convert buildings from a climate liability into a renewable asset. Jacobson’s own house provides a prime example of this opportunity. Pairing energy-efficient design techniques with a rooftop photovoltaic (PV) solar array allows his newly-constructed home to produce more energy than it consumes – and still have enough left over to charge his electric car. Point Energy Innovations applies similar principles on a larger scale, promoting cost-effective, environmentally sustainable approaches to reduce building energy consumption and integrate on-site renewable generation.
While many of us at Point Energy are familiar with the benefits of renewable energy from a climate and environmental sustainability perspective, our discussions with Jacobson highlighted the inextricable link between energy and human health. With this in mind, the Point Energy team will continue working towards a paradigm shift within the built environment from energy negative to energy positive by promoting the development of innovative, efficient and net zero energy buildings.