What happens to the thousands of tons of solar panels at the end of their life?

If he solar panels began to settle on our roofs and in our fields many years ago, the question of your recycling, just beginning to emerge. But the photovoltaic sector did not wait until the last minute to organize itself in this direction. And fortunately, moreover, because of the thousands of tons that need to be processed today, the number of solar panels at the end of their life should be multiplied by 10 in less than a decade. Report at a waste recycling center heights of france where 200 tons were processed on Wednesday alone.

Have you always wondered what this famous “eco-participation” (WEEE) of a few cents that they charge you when you buy a electrical or electronic device ? We have the answer, concrete, at least as far as solar panels are concerned. Added together, these small amounts make up the budget of Soren, the state-approved organization in charge of collecting and recycling solar panels on French territory. The non-profit organization is owned by eight major players in the photovoltaic industry, including Engiewho presides over it. Today, the structure remains relatively small with its 6 employees and its budget of 6 million euros. “This budget is essentially complemented by the ecotax. But we provision the same amount each year to be able to cope with the increase in activity in the coming years”, explains Vianney De Lavernée, president of Soren.

50,000 tons of panels per year in a decade

Some numbers to get an idea of ​​what the future holds for the solar panel recycling industry. Between 2015 and 2020, 16,000 tons were processed. In the month of July alone, the Galloo recycling company, holder of the two-year contract, transferred 3,600 tons of used panels. In 2022, the figure should reach 5,000 tons. “Within ten years we should reach annual volumes of 50,000 tons,” says the president by Soren. So the mana is not there to dry up, particularly as solar energy is on the rise. In 2021 alone, 8 million panels were installed in France according to Soren.

The other advantage of photovoltaics, in addition to providing green energy, is that the panels are 90% recyclable. “Aluminium, copper, the metallized sheets that make them up are all materials that constitute reusable raw materials. Even glass is used to make substitute materials,” says Galloo’s Rudy Hennion. The remaining 10% is used for energy recovery with an estimated loss between 5 and 7%. “Recycling is ultimately a strategic and ecological sector since, insists Vianney De Lavernée. This saves resources by creating raw materials that can be used directly on our territory.”

The fairly simple recycling process is not specific to solar panels. Once the power cables have been cut, the panels are sent for shredding. What comes out of the crusher then passes through baths of different densities that allow the selective recovery of the materials. It is true that this requires very large machines and some steps are quite tedious. “Working in collaboration with recycling companies will allow us to think about the design of future generations of panels to further facilitate their treatment at the end of their useful life”, adds the head of Soren. A long-term vision, estimating the useful life of a panel between 30 and 40 years.

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