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Solar photovoltaic panels convert sunlight into energy and help combat the climate crisis. BlackRockSolar / Flickr / CC by 2.0

World - Solar Panels Are Starting to Die. Will We be Able to Recycle the E-Waste?

Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels convert sunlight into energy and continue to play an essential role in the fight to stop the climate crisis.

As the pioneering panels of the early 2000s near the end of their 30-year electronic lives, however, they are at risk of becoming the world's next big wave of e-waste.

International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), a leading energy agency, projected that up to 78 million metric tons of solar panels will have reached the end of their life by 2050, resulting in about 6 million metric tons of new solar e-waste annually, reported Grist.

The IRENA report noted that since their debut, solar PV deployment has grown at "unprecedented rates," with global installed PV capacity reaching 222 gigawatts (GW) by the end of 2015, with projections rising to 4,500 GW by 2050. Earth911 reported that solar is the fastest-growing energy source in the world.

According to recent research, wind and solar renewable energy technologies will soon be cheaper than coal globally. This will drive even further deployment of solar panels. The United States, China, India, Japan and Germany have planned for "particularly high" deployment, the IRENA report said. As the global PV market continues to expand, so too will the e-waste we can expect when the panels are decommissioned.

IRENA also analyzed the potential upside and value creation of proper end-of-life management of PV panels. It noted that proper management could help shift the world to sustainable long-term development.

By 2030 and 2050, respectively, the report projected:

  • Cumulative PV capacity to be 1,600 GW and 4,500 GW,
  • Cumulative PV waste to reach up to 8 million tonnes and 78 million tonnes,
  • Value creation to be $450 million and $15 billion in raw materials recovery,
  • New industries and employment opportunities to arise from repair, reuse, recycling and treatment of PV panels,
  • Enough raw materials recovered to produce 60 million new panels (equivalent to 18 GW) and 2 billion new panels (equivalent to 630 GW).

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