The Life Cycle of a Sustainable Solar Panel and the Importance of LCA Certification

Sustainable manufacturing, shipping, and deployment of solar panels play a vital role in the global transition to a zero-carbon economy. One often-overlooked aspect of this decarbonization transition involves ensuring sustainability for the entire life cycle of solar panels.

Solar panels typically have a 25 to 30-year lifespan, although some panels remain productive after this warranty period. The solar industry is roughly the same age as the first wave of solar panel deployments from the 1990s. We’ve reached a point of mass installation retirements, with these panels now in their lifecycle end stage. As the solar industry matures, it’s essential to view the entire life cycle of a solar panel from start to finish.

Let’s look at the phases of a solar panel life cycle and why Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) certification is paramount for ensuring sustainable disposal practices. 

What Are the Stages of the Solar Panel Life Cycle?

In the simplest terms, the solar panel life cycle breaks down into four phases: Material Sourcing, Manufacturing, Shipping/Deployment, and Decommissioning.

  1. Material Sourcing: Sourcing raw materials for PV modules, including polysilicon, glass, aluminum, and more, is the first stage in the life cycle of solar panels. Like the other steps, this phase must include sustainability throughout the supply chain via robust traceability audits.

  2. Manufacturing: During this stage, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) process raw materials to produce finished solar panels. This stage consumes a significant amount of energy. OEMs committed to sustainability, like Trina Solar, continuously improve energy efficiency, recycle wastewater, and implement other “low-emission/high-sustainability” practices to offset energy consumption and the carbon footprint.

  3. Shipping and Deployment: As the world’s electrification and decarbonization transition speeds ahead, shipping and deployment of solar panels will only continue to grow. In developing the 210mm Vertex module series, Trina’s team created an innovative vertical 600W+ Vertex Module Integrated Delivery Solution that increases transportation capacity by 10% and reduces CO2 emissions by up to 8%.

  4. Decommissioning: A solar panel is decommissioned once its performance and production are no longer cost-effective. This stage is crucial for OEMs and other solar-industry stakeholders to remain focused on sustainability. Without a clear end-of-life solution, unsound disposal practices can drive environmental degradation while trapping valuable materials underground.

These four stages taken collectively can potentially do more environmental harm than good if solar OEMs do not account for the entire life cycle of their products. 

What Does Life Cycle Assessment Certification Mean? 

As shown above, addressing each stage of a solar panel’s life cycle is important to ensure that the entire process remains as sustainable as possible. 

Trina Solar actively monitors global climate patterns and strives to practice sustainable development for each product's life cycle. This dedication to sustainable practices has positioned us as the first solar panel manufacturer to receive Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Certification from TÜV Rheinland, a global leader in independent technical inspections and assessments.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) follows the methods and requirements of ISO 14040/ISO 14044 to conduct scientific and stringent tests of life-cycle carbon emissions and other indicators of the assessed subject. The products tested, sampled from Trina Solar’s major production factories around the world for testing and certification, cover the full range of p-type monocrystalline 210mm modules from Vertex S 410W to Vertex 670W.

The results show that Trina Solar Vertex modules are outstanding in the industry for their low-carbon emissions. The average carbon emissions of PV modules’ lifecycle assessment “from cradle to grave” in China are about 550kg CO2_E/kW. Trina Solar's 210mm Vertex modules' carbon emissions reach less than 400kg CO2_E/kW without special silicon materials. Trina’s carbon emissions are at least 30% lower than the industry average in China. Taking the 30-year product life cycle as an example, Trina Solar Vertex modules have an electricity emission factor of less than 0.01. Carbon emissions of thermal power are more than 100 times higher.

But we’re not done. We continue to find new ways to reduce our carbon footprint to ensure sustainability for our products’ entire life cycle. Read more about our efforts in our 2021 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report. And don’t forget to follow us on social media to learn more about our sustainability and social responsibility efforts. 

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