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Reusing PV modules pose opportunities and challenges

With photovoltaics playing an ever growing role in renewable energy generation, the efficient reuse and repair of PV modules is becoming increasingly desirable, particularly in low-income countries. According to a new study, however, unclear legislation and weak international electronic waste guidelines are hampering their efficient repurposing.

In their exploratory report on the sector, Belgian non-profit organization PV Cycle and European innovation hub Imec/EnergyVille detail the current practices, risks and challenges of the reemployment market in order to inform concerned authorities and stakeholders, and to formulate initial recommendations. They point out that in the circular economy approach, reuse and repair actions play an essential role in extending the useful life of PV modules by preventing their early entry into the waste stream, according to the report.

A reemployment market exploiting the first wave of dismantling is emerging 15 years after the beginning of the initial boom in PV installations. As a nascent industry, however, PV module reuse is a sector in which companies operate “in an unexplored and mostly unregulated area,” the report finds, adding: “Industrial and public players in PV and/or waste management have little or no knowledge of its operations.

PV Cycle and Imec/EnergyVille note that PV has rapidly become one of the most economic energy generation technologies. “The price of electricity generated by PV has reached a levelized cost of electricity of 5-10 €c/kWh, leading to a major acceleration of its deployment with over 110 GWp of newly installed capacity in 2019 alone,” the study states. Cumulative installed PV capacity is now 627 GWp and it is expected to reach over 1 TWp by 2025.

With crystalline silicon (c-Si) PV modules representing 95 % of the PV market and the terawatt era of PV modules fast approaching, important questions are being raised about end-of-life management as 5 million tons of PV waste by 2030 is projected by IRENA.

“Embracing a circular economic model for this maturing industry brings a major opportunity to make sure that PV becomes one of the most sustainable sources of energy,” the study stresses.

Some 15 companies are currently active in the PV reuse sector, a market estimated at between 500 and 600 MWp per year. “The volume traded is very difficult to estimate as neither PV site decommissioning nor PV resell markets are registered,” the report states.

PV modules represent approximately 40% of the total PV system costs, which motivates the reuse business case. However, the continued rapid decrease of PV modules prices (now down to 0.2-0.3 €/Wp) and rapid increase of PV module efficiencies (now in the range of 17 to 21%), raise questions about the economic viability of the sector.

Second-hand PV modules with lower performance and lifetime expectations but with higher financial risks are mostly in demand in low-income markets, such as countries in Africa, Western Asia and Southeast Asia, where customers seek extreme low-cost PV systems with less quality and aesthetic requirements. A rather small and temporary market of around 10 MWp still exists in western Europe where feed-in tariff regulations often require “very similar” replacement modules in case of damage.

“Overall, reused or repaired PV modules are not competitive for new residential, commercial and utility-scale PV installations in high-income countries or even in developing countries with government incentives to deploy PV,” the study stresses.

Currently, PV modules for reuse are mainly sourced from large commercial PV systems of 10 kWp to MWp in capacity or from large-scale PV plants larger than 1 MWp in Europe, the US and China that have been damaged by severe weather leading to all PV modules being removed, though many can be intact. “The most cost-effective method is to collect reusable modules at the decommissioning site with the sorting, visual and electrical testing and documentation directly completed upon removal and even including small repairs of the external electrical components of the modules (cabling, connectors, diodes),” the report notes.

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Eszter Voroshazi, R&D manager at Imec/EnergyVille, says technical guidelines and standards detailing the sorting and testing steps and, most importantly, setting the technical criteria to qualify modules for reuse “are a must to ensure the high quality of reused modules. It might be worthwhile to consider only PV modules for reuse which still have a power above 70% of their initial value and to exclude PV modules with defects having an even minor concern for safety.”

The implementation of such requirements, which are currently totally absent, “would ensure homogenous product quality and build trust towards clients and the original equipment manufacturers,” Voroshazi adds.

“In principle, preparing PV modules for reuse has no negative environmental implications, hence it is a
desirable step as part of the circular economic model for PV,” the report finds. In Europe, eco-design requirements imposed on electrical and electronic equipment measuring CO2 footprints are expected to enter into action for PV
modules in the coming years.

This is likely to make reuse PV modules more competitive and desirable, according to PV Cycle CEO Jan Clyncke.

At the same time, used modules can pose an environmental threat if they are not properly recycled.

“An important note is that the environmental feasibility of the second-hand PV modules is at risk if their adequate recycling is not guaranteed after their second life,” Clyncke adds. “Thus, the current practice of exporting reused PV modules to developing countries with insufficient waste regulations is creating a major environmental concern.”

The reuse of PV modules clearly creates employment opportunities for a technically skilled and local workforce, both in decommissioning and re-installation countries, the study notes. “This should be accompanied by proper training of the workforce, which could lead to the creation of 63 jobs per 1,000 tons of electric and electronic waste according to an estimation of the RRE-USE network. It is important to note that to ensure economic viability of the sector, especially in high-income countries where PV systems are decommissioned, automation in sorting, testing, etc., would be required.

“Such market growth is not only desirable due to the generation of jobs, it also reduces energy poverty in low-income countries, which indirectly contributes to further economic and social development.”

Overall, unclear legislation, the lack of control of the European Commission’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive and the nearly complete lack of similar legislation outside the EU “raise serious environmental and safety concerns about the reuse of PV modules,” the study finds.

“At the dawn of the first decommissioning wave of PV systems, followed by an expected rapid rise of the volumes of reusable PV modules, we ask for a careful assessment of the sector and its adequate regulations in consultation with the relevant global actors.”

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Source: pv magazine