The Lifecycle of a Solar Panel

The role of solar PV module manufacturers extends far beyond the end of the assembly line. For responsible solar panel manufacturers, this means overseeing the entire life cycle of a solar panel, from initial production to on-site commissioning and through its end-of-life stage.

While solar module production and usage stages are well-understood across the industry, it’s that final stage that typically requires more attention. Without a clear end-of-life solution in place, unsound disposal practices can drive environmental degradation while trapping valuable materials underground.  

In keeping with its message of sustainability, the industry has been making great strides toward more ethical and profitable end-of-life obligations for solar modules and components. With a comprehensive set of best practices, it’s possible for solar companies to make better informed decisions on whether to repair, repurpose, recycle, or responsibly dispose of solar modules.

Let’s take a look at these three stages of a solar panel life cycle - production, use and decommissioning - with a focus on responsible PV end-of-life management. 

 

Production

 

The production stage includes module design, raw material sourcing, material processing and manufacturing. Essentially everything that happens before installing and commissioning a solar module.

Manufacturing and installing solar PV modules require an initial investment of money, materials and resources that can pay off in the long-term. This stage also consumes energy and creates a carbon footprint, the very things solar power seeks to displace. To offset this consumption and ensure sustainable production patterns, Trina Solar has focused on improving energy usage and efficiency. These practices have allowed Trina Solar’s manufacturing operations and R&D activities to once again achieve “zero” carbon emissions in 2018.

 

Use

 

After production finishes, the usage stage begins when solar panels go to work converting sunlight into energy. During this period, the power generated by solar PV installations offsets the energy used during the production stage, before delivering renewable energy to the grid. Depending on the location and technology used, this energy payback time typically lasts between six months and two years.

With solar PV modules averaging a 25 to 30-year lifespan, it allows for plenty of energy production. However, this also means the generation of panels commissioned in the mid-to-late 90s is reaching their useful end of life like many power electronic products. Further, as ever more of the world’s population embraces clean, renewable energy sources, the installation and use of solar panels will only continue to grow. This will require more sustainable PV end-of-life management.

 

Decommissioning

 

Once a solar panel has operated for as long as possible, it’s time for decommissioning. But what do you do with a solar panel that no longer works?

One responsible way to view the end-of-life stage for solar panels includes the circular economy approach. A circular economy (CE) works by efficiently reducing and reusing resources, maintaining a high value for all components at all times, and extending the life of products through maintenance and repair. It essentially works as a resource loop, constantly keeping materials in use and out of waste.

Within a CE approach, several options are available for module end-of-life decommissioning:

Repair and Reuse - Retail and service providers can repair or distribute the panels to other projects. However, it does create economic and regulatory challenges, as panels may require inspection, repair, testing, and in some instances, recertification. Plus, sometimes this option simply isn’t applicable for irreparable panels.

Refurbish/remanufacture - Manufacturers can reclaim the panels to further extend the useful lifetime of the panels and/or their components. This path also runs into many of the same economic and regulatory problems as repair and reuse.

Recycling - Material recovery can play an important role in alleviating the environmental impact, while also generating value. Glass, polymer, aluminum, silicon, copper and other materials that comprise solar panels can potentially be extracted, sold and reprocessed for other purposes. This helps keep the materials in circulation and not in a landfill.

Landfilling - Although this is the easiest option, it’s also the most unsustainable. This method traps valuable materials underground and out of reach. The World Economic Forum estimates $62.5 billion worth of valuable materials is locked up in e-waste each year.

Trina Solar’s overarching commitment to sustainability drives the company’s approach to responsible solar panel end-of-life decommissioning. Trina Solar’s Head of Product Management and Marketing for the Americas, Ryan Simpson, shared, “this commitment includes voluntary participation in take-back and recycling programs. We are working hard to achieve a scrapped PV module recycling rate of 85 percent and a reuse rate of 80 percent.”

You can learn more about Trina’s commitment to sustainability by downloading the 2018 CSR report here.

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