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The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times
8 Apr 2023

NextImg:Massive Number of Waste PV Panels in China Raising Concerns Over High-Cost of Recycling, Environmental Pollution

China is facing a recycling challenge and environmental strain caused by large numbers of end-of-life solar panels after a decade of rapid photovoltaic (PV) industry expansion.

Over the years, China has been scrambling to increase its PV production and ignoring uneven adherence to technology standards. As a result, massive numbers of solar panels become out-of-service before expected, Fang Qi, an investment consultant living in the United Kingdom, told The Epoch Times on April 4.

Recycling solar panels has become an increasingly pressing issue in China, said Fang, citing that the scrapping rate of PV panels has reached about 30 percent per year.

Construction workers install solar panels at Hami Solar Power Station on Aug. 22, 2011, in Hami, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. (VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

By 2030, China’s PV module waste is predicted to reach about 18 GW and 1.4 million tons, while by 2040, the number will soar to 253 GW, “about 20 million tons,” said Liu Limin, deputy secretary of the PV specialized committee of China ECOPV Alliance, on March 17 at the Tenth Guangdong PV Forum.

This is a decade ahead of the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) previous forecast (pdf), which estimated that China’s PV panel waste volume would reach 20 million tons by 2050.

Jiang Hua, assistant secretary general of the CPIA, told Xinhuanet, a Chinese official media, last May that China’s installed PV capacity reached the GW level for the first time in 2011. Based on the 20-year lifespan of PV modules, a large number of scrapped modules will emerge by 2031. In reality, however, the mass scrapping of panels arrives earlier than expected.

China’s manufacture and application of PV modules account for more than 70 percent of the world’s production, according to Liu Limin. Thus once those PV modules are discarded, handling the waste with burial, incineration, and natural degradation will inevitably wreck the environment, she said.

A notice issued by China Photovoltaic Industry Association (CPIA) in early March indicated that a recycling working group, aiming to cope with waste PV modules, is underway.

PV panel recycling in China is confronted with the problems of high cost and low revenue.

According to an official standard for recycling waste PV panels released in August 2022, in terms of the composition of the PV module, glass makes up 70 percent of the weight of the panel; an aluminum frame accounts for 10 percent, adhesive sealant 10 percent, silicon 5 percent, metals such as silver, copper, and gallium add up to about 1 percent.

Solar PV panels are usually cured by sandwiching the PV module between the backing plate and the glass cover and then secured by an aluminum frame. This design makes the discarded panels difficult to disassemble. Much of the recycling work stops at removing the aluminum frame and electrical junction box, and the rest is usually shredded and sold as low-value pellets or broken glass.

Metals have a value of up to two-thirds of the PV panel materials but cost more to recycle.

A worker lifts a solar panel in the Yingli Solar factory, a leading solar energy company and one of the world’s largest manufacturers of solar panels in Baoding, Hebei province, on Sept. 30, 2010. (PeterR Parks/AFP via Getty Images)

“It is challenging to recycle PV panels due to high logistics costs, immature recycling technology, high investment consumption, low purity of recyclables, and the fact that yet formed a scale,” said He Shuangquan, CEO of Suntech Power, a prominent Chinese PV manufacturer in Wuxi city of eastern coastal Jiangsu Province, to China Securities Journal in May last year.

He Shuangquan pointed out earlier in a paper that the value of metals like as aluminum and silver that can be extracted from a retired PV module is about 56.5 yuan (about $8.20). Recycling each module costs about 75 yuan (about $11). Therefore, if the operation is entirely by the market mechanism, it is difficult for enterprises to survive.

A general manager of a PV recycling company in Nantong city of Jiangsu Province revealed that the total revenue generated from recycling a mainstream version 60 PV module is 63 yuan (about $9.2). In contrast, the recycling cost of each module is about 69 yuan ($10), according to a report from Chinese media.

Most of China’s PV production capacity is in the hands of state-owned enterprises or large private enterprises, but they are almost reluctant to bother with recycling, according to Fang Qi, “Therefore, the waste PV materials are subcontracted layer by layer and eventually handed over to some small workshops in rural areas for simple processing, for example, manually cracked, plastic, aluminum frame dismantled to sell money.”

Besides high-cost recycling, the environmental protection fee is a burden to factories. “The Chinese manufacturers themselves have meager profits; if you [local authorities] add the so-called environmental protection expenses, private enterprises have to close down.”

Some local governments may subsidize plants to incentivize waste disposal, but many plants simply accept the subsidies, leaving the recycling technology bottlenecks aside, Fang said.

Garbage can be left anywhere in the village on Feb. 1, 2007 at Lianjiao, Foshan city, Guangdong province of China. (Cancan Chu/Getty Images)

Due to a lack of technology that can adequately recycle discarded PV panels, most disposal methods are burning, piling up, or burying the waste on-site. Many of the “garbage villages” reported in the Chinese media have experienced or still carry out the recycling of used solar photovoltaic panels.

PV panels contain toxic heavy metals such as lead, selenium, and cadmium, which can result in environmental pollution if not properly recycled after disposal. Many PV panels were tossed out in junkyards, and their toxic substances may contaminate groundwater.