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<JUN, Issue, 2012>
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Cell & Module

PV Module Recycling: Is Sustainable Cycle Becoming Reality?

In 2010, the take-back and recycling scheme for PV modules is being rolled out in Germany. In this country, approximately 3,000 tons of end-of life panels will be generated in 2010 representing about 50% of the European total. The estimates for 2030 show that this figure will rise to 130,000 tons in Europe. The members of PV CYCLE have shown their commitment to protecting the environment and are putting into practice their promises after two years of hard work─the initial efforts of PV CYCLE have started to pay off.


By Jan Clyncke


The last few months of 2009 were particularly exciting for PV CYCLE. All the efforts put into the launch of the scheme are paying off and it will be operational in Germany in the first quarter of 2010. Preparations are well underway and it has selected the logistics company that will take care of the collection and transportation of end-of-life modules. In addition, it plans to sign its first agreements with the recycling plants that will process the collected panels.

The plans for the official launch in Germany are also falling into place. It is well on its way to having at least one collection point in each of the German regions (Lnder). Despite the latest political changes in the support to renewable energy and the global economic downturn that the economies are trying to recover from, the members remain determined to fully realize the goals of PV CYCLE. It is confident that the photovoltaic industry has a prosperous future in store and will continue to grow. Particularly in Germany, the European country with the largest installed capacity, it must continue working to ensure that the system is up and running when large volumes of modules begin to be disposed of.


The Origins of PV CYCLE


The origins of ecological concerns go back to the early years of photovoltaics, around the 1980s. But it was not until the following decade that research into module recycling started at an international level. At that time, private companies and research institutes across the globe started to pay attention to this new technology trying to develop new ways to minimize its ecological impact.

The need to come up with reliable solutions for module recycling has also been influenced by the end user. From the very beginning, customers have approached producers and distributors asking them about waste management and recycling possibilities. Those who pioneered the installations of the first PV systems clearly showed their concerns for protecting the environment and finding a reliable solution for the adequate disposal of modules at the end of their life.

Since then, a number of manufacturers have been working on the development of their recycling processes. However, the quantities of PV modules available for recycling are still too low to make any private scheme 100% commercially viable. This is why initiatives such as PV CYCLE, which was set up in 2007 to bring together all major European PV producers and distributors, can really make a difference for the industry.

The members of PV CYCLE include mostly manufacturers and importers of PV modules and represent more than 85% of the European photovoltaic market. Their contributions will serve to finance the set-up and implementation of the take-back and recycling scheme. However, money alone will not make the system work. To guarantee that end-of-life PV modules get adequately recycled, it is imperative that wholesalers, retailers, electrical installation contractors, system integrators and project developers also get involved in the process.


Thinking Ahead


The renewable energy sector is actively promoted by the European Union. The goal that has been set up for 2020 will require that 20% of all the energy generated in the EU come from renewable sources. In this context, the photovoltaic industry is committed to offering a sustainable solution to meet future energy demands. For that reason, the members of PV CYCLE have taken up the concept of extended producer responsibility to put into practice the necessary mechanisms to minimize the ecological impact of their products.

The photovoltaic industry is already committed to providing clean and renewable energy and ensuring that the technology they use does not create a waste management problem for future generations. According to the figures presented by the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA) in a recent study entitled ‘SET For 2020’ about 4.5 GW were already installed in Europe in 2008. This represents 18% of all new installed electrical capacity. Photovoltaics has become the fastest growing renewable energy technology and, as EPIA’s study suggests, PV electricity could move up from providing less than 1% of the EU electricity demand today to up to 12% by 2020.

Therefore, it is vital to start thinking ahead and developing the necessary mechanisms to provide for the recycling of PV modules. Photovoltaic energy has enormous potential as a viable source of renewable energy for Europe. By setting up PV CYCLE, the industry has also shown its voluntary determination to make solar energy ‘Double Green’ and take responsibility for its waste. The substantial reduction in component incineration in favor of an increased volume of recycled modules will also contribute to recovering precious raw materials and preserving the planet’s scarce natural resources.


Supporting the Network


PV CYCLE will set up a network of collection points that will operate with a reverse logistics approach. Special containers will be permanently located in distribution and retail outlets, installers facilities, as well as in storage and transfer stations. End-of-life PV modules will be taken to those disposal locations by either the owners or the installers right after they are dismantled. Where necessary, PV CYCLE will arrange for the pickup and transportation. Temporary containers will also be placed at large construction, renovation and demolition project sites.

In order for the whole system to operate efficiently, as many actors as possible in all stages of the value chain must become involved. The distribution and installation channels of photovoltaic modules are, therefore, crucial for the PV CYCLE scheme to move forward because the replacement of modules will likely be done by the same companies that handled their initial sale and installation and who can now contribute to their appropriate disposal.

Everybody must get involved in closing the life cycle of PV modules as shown in Figure 1.

PV CYCLE’s take-back and recycling scheme will be fully transparent. To accomplish that goal, an independent monitoring committee will be created with representatives from the European institutions and NGOs. They will be in charge of supervising the work and progress of the association under the presidency of Professor Jef Poortmans, a well-known and respected specialist in PV technology. In addition, PV CYCLE will issue an annual public report on the performance of the system as well as its future performance.


2010 Launch in Germany


PV CYCLE will be officially launched in Germany in 2010. This has not been a random choice. Since 2000, the PV production capacity and the installation of new plants has been growing strongly in Germany. Benefiting from wide government and financial support measures such as the 100,000 Rooftop Program or the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) , and the existence of a suitable infrastructure and technical know-how, the country quickly became the leading EU Member State in the PV sector.

According to the forecast presented in a study commissioned by EPIA and the founding members of PV CYCLE in 2007, approximately 3,000 tons of PV modules will be disposed off in Germany during 2010. This figure represents about 50% of all the PV waste that will be generated in Europe in 2010 (approximately 7,000 tons). This proportion will remain almost the same even after 2020 when the estimated amount of PV waste will reach 35,000 tons.

Because solar panels have a very long life span, the volumes of end-of-life modules will rise considerably in 20 to 25 years. The prognosis presented in this study shows that by 2030, about 130,000 tons of PV waste will be disposed of in Europe. Therefore, it is crucial that PV CYCLE succeeds in the first years of operation to be able to accommodate such large volumes in the future.


Future Expansion


In Europe, Spain is in the second position in terms of installed PV capacity, followed by Italy, France, the Netherlands and the U.K. PV CYCLE aims at being operative not only in all of these countries but in the entire EU and in all EFTA (European Free Trade Association) members. Wherever solar panels are being installed, PV CYCLE will work to provide a sustainable and timely solution for their adequate recycling.

The roll-out of the scheme will be done in a progressive manner focusing first on the countries where considerable amounts of end-of-life modules will be generated. Spain is logically PV CYCLE’s next objective and our plan is to become operational right after the system is implemented and tested in Germany. In the last months of 2009, PV CYCLE met with several Spanish government representatives who welcomed PV CYCLE’s initiative enthusiastically and offered their total support to the project.


Political Support


PV CYCLE cannot do this alone. It can provide a harmonized solution to the management of PV waste throughout Europe but to succeed, it will also need the support of government and public administration at the EU, national, regional and municipal levels.

Having a system that is entirely financed by the manufacturers and importers of modules will solve the problem of having different individual programs running in each country. Working in a coordinated fashion will also help to reduce costs and maximize efficiency. PV CYCLE and the public administration must make a concerted effort in the best interest of the citizens and also to guarantee a sustainable future for the industry and our planet.


Advantages for the Value Chain


Becoming involved in PV CYCLE also offers wholesalers, retailers and installers a great marketing opportunity to differentiate their companies from others showing a clear commitment to protecting the environment and reducing energy consumption. As consumers become increasingly aware of the ecological impact of certain products, many will definitely take into consideration their participation in the take-back and recycling scheme before deciding to install PV modules.

At the same time, PV CYCLE will provide the support of its network to all the companies involved so that they are able to provide a complete and consistent service to their customers and end users. They will, for example, be able to address their questions and concerns related to end-of-life management of photovoltaic modules which they will now be able to dispose free of charge.

The creation of PV CYCLE and the implementation of the take-back program is an excellent example of how an industrial sector in Europe can organize itself on a voluntary basis to ensure the collection and recycling of its products once they reach their end of life. However, the future of this initiative will rely on having all the members of the value chain engaged in the process. Only by doing so will the photovoltaic industry be able to address potential waste issues and truly offer a “Double Green” energy source to power the world.


Jan Clyncke, Managing Director of PV CYCLE (http://www.pvcycle.org/) is a law graduate from the University of Ghent with extensive experience setting up voluntary and mandatory waste take-back schemes in Belgium and the Netherlands.



For more information, please send your e-mails to pved@infothe.com.

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