If I install a solar panel does it mean I’m green?

Ever since the French physicist Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect in 1838, it has been possible to generate electricity from sunlight. The potential this brings is particularly interesting in today’s society because of global warming. However, although solar panels do produce zero-carbon electricity from an inexhaustible energy source, the ecological impacts of making the panels and their end-of-life decommissioning should not be underestimated. Read on to find out more and where we go from here.

Ah, the sun! Not only is it the origin of life on Earth, it is also capable of supplying clean electricity to Humankind. We would only need to capture 0.01% of the sun’s power to be able to bypass all other forms of energy. It’s undoubtedly this potential that’s encouraging researchers, industrialists and environmentally-committed individuals to produce such a form of electricity that doesn’t harm the planet.

The booming photovoltaic (PV) market reflects this aim. Estimated at 300 GW at end-2016, the world’s total installed PV capacity has grown significantly since then, representing over 500 GW today. Although later than in other countries and on a smaller scale, France has also seen a sharp rise in solar installations since 2017. Between June 2017 and June 2018, France’s grid-connected PV capacity jumped 59% to 8,533 MW, and the objective is to triple the figure to between 18,200 and 20,200 MW by 2023.

In June 2018, Sébastien Lecornu – the former Secretary of State in France’s Ministry of Ecology –announced a plan called “Place au soleil” which, among other things, is aimed at encouraging solar self-consumption for households and businesses. The idea is to avoid clogging the grid and to fully leverage the energy potential of rooftops, which the ADEME (the French Environment and Energy Management Agency) estimates at 360,000 hectares, with a PV capacity of 350 GW.

Manufacturing mainly based in Asia, with high CO2 emissions

So, all of this seems to say that installing solar panels is a good idea. But even setting aside the intermittency problems of solar power generation and the fact that the panels’ yields are still limited, we mustn’t forget the ecological issues related to the boom in the global PV market.

To fully grasp this, we need to ask two questions: how and where are solar panels made?

The solar panels made today use crystalline technologies (currently the most popular) and thin-film PV technologies. The main raw material used for crystalline panels is silicon – the second most abundant raw material on Earth after oxygen – and the other components are aluminium, copper and silver. The manufacture of thin-film panels is more problematic, as it requires indium and gallium, two rare-earth elements that the European Union has classified as critical raw materials. But these panels currently account for less than 10% of the market.

Extracting and purifying silicon are therefore key processes. Currently, most of the silicon blocks used to make the panels are produced in Asia and assembly is mainly carried out in China.

To make these blocks, the silicon needs to be purified. Although it’s the second most abundant raw material on Earth after oxygen (making up 25.7% of the Earth’s crust), it doesn’t exist in a pure state which means it isn’t directly usable. And to make it usable requires energy. In Asia, and particularly in China, the energy used for the purification comes from coal-fired power stations, which emit very high levels of CO2. “A panel made in China and installed in Europe will take two or three years to offset the CO2 emissions related to its manufacture”, explain Dominique Louis and Jean-Louis Ricaud in their book “2050: A Carbon-Free France”. The authors go on to say that, “Based on a Smart Green Scans study cited by the ADEME in 2016, the carbon footprint of photovoltaic electricity in France is 55 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour. This value was calculated based on the 2011 international market for the components of solar panels, the location and conditions of their manufacture, and the market shares of the different technologies used for their modules”.

This means that the challenge today is for Europe to gain, or regain, a major position in the PV value chain. In France, for example, only 3% of the country’s installed solar panels are made in Europe.

This is one of the raisons d’être of the Ile-de-France Photovoltaic Institute (IPVF) based in Saclay, Greater Paris, which was inaugurated on 18 December 2018. The idea behind the IPVF is for industrial and public-sector partners to come together with a view to developing and commercialising high-yield, long-life and low-cost solar cells to compete with the all-powerful Chinese market and improve the environmental impact of the PV industry.  

What should we do with end-of-life solar panels?

For an energy to be truly green, its whole life cycle has to be taken into account, including recycling the raw materials contained in the equipment used for its production. Although their life spans have increased from 20 years in the past to 30 or 40 years today, and will undoubtedly reach 50 years or more in the future, whatever happens solar panels will always have to be processed at the end of their lives. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that waste from solar panels could exceed 5 million tonnes by 2050. We therefore need to think about recycling, especially as the first panels commissioned in the 1990s are arriving at the end of their performance capacities.

In Europe, fortunately this issue has been anticipated. The European WEEE Directive – which was adopted in 2012 – requires manufacturers of solar panels to pre-finance the collection and recycling of end-of-life panels across the 28 EU member states. 

In France, PV Cycle has been named the government-approved organization in charge of the collection and recycling of solar panels. According to this company, 100% of silicon crystalline models can be recycled. But to do this requires special infrastructure.

On this point, France is on the right track. PV Cycle France has launched its first invitation to tender for processing and recycling solar panel waste, which was won by Veolia. And in the summer of 2018, Veolia opened its first solar panel recycling plant, at Rousset in the south of France. This plant is the first infrastructure of its kind in the world and will enable 95% of solar panel waste to be recycled. But it will need to be copied elsewhere in France and the rest of the world in order to manage the recycling requirements expected in the near future.

In an article posted on The Conversation, the Kedge Business School professors, Anicia Jaegler and Joerg S. Hofstetter, concluded that “The solar power sector needs to step up its efforts to work on all aspects of the life cycle of solar panels, rather than just focusing on performance. Eco-design to facilitate recycling has become a necessity”.

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