Exploring the Future of Solar Recycling: A Site Visit to 2nd Life Solar

29.05.2024

Today, we visited 2nd Life Solar, a key partner in our Quasar project, to learn about their role in repurposing End-of-Life (EOL) photovoltaic (PV) modules. Led by company manager Martin Wilke, our discussion covered the current practices of solar recycling. Moreover, we had the opportunity to witness the testing of EOL modules at their Hamburg facilities, which provided valuable firsthand experience of their operations. Here’s a glimpse into our conversation and how Quasar aims to contribute to shaping a sustainable future of solar recycling.


Martin, what are the current challenges in the second-hand market for EOL solar modules, and how do you balance economic factors with environmental considerations in addressing them?

The current second-hand market for EOL solar modules struggles with profitability due to declining module prices, especially those produced in China. In many instances, the cost of examining EOL modules exceeds their resale value, rendering re-use economically unviable. To mitigate high transportation costs and optimizing operational efficiency, we have partnered up with additional testing sites in Munich and Görlitz Despite the challenges, it’s important to consider the broader environmental and sustainability perspective, especially in terms of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) criteria and the CO2 footprint. Let me give you an example: when we look at the numbers, transporting 10 tons of solar modules (equivalent to approximately 500 modules) to the testing site using conventional means generates about 68kg of CO2 per 100 km travelled. Now, let’s scale down to one module: by re-using a single solar module, we can safe up to 300 kg of CO2 per module that can be re-used and substitutes the production of a new solar module.
When we contrast this with the alternative of using new modules produced in China, it’s worth noting that these often come with a higher carbon footprint. They are frequently manufactured using coal electricity and transported by ship, which contributes to a worse CO2 balance per module. Therefore, despite the immediate economic challenges, from an ESG and CO2 footprint perspective, re-use can prove to be economically and environmentally beneficial in the long run. In addition, in the greater Hamburg area we already have a fleet of e-trucks in use, which we aim for transporting solar modules.


Could you explain the partnerships involved in collecting and transporting EOL solar panels?

Local partners play a crucial role in collecting EOL panels, which are then transported to our specialized waste disposal companies in Hamburg, Görlitz and Munich. Compliance with EU directives, particularly the WEEE directive, places the responsibility on manufacturers for the collection and recycling of EOL PV modules. Pre-sorting in the country of origin streamlines the process, ensuring efficient identification and separation of salvageable materials.


Do disposal practices differ between individuals and solar park operators?

Yes, individuals typically utilize their solar systems until they malfunction, resulting in their disposal at recycling centres, while park operators often replace modules prematurely for economic reasons. 2nd Life Solar plays a pivotal role in testing these replaced modules for functionality, redirecting functional units for re-use, and facilitating further recycling for defective ones.


What factors influence the economic viability of recycling operations and re-use initiatives?

The viability of recycling operations hinges on achieving minimum annual tonnages, typically ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 tons. However, inadequate volumes of defective modules, in praxis sometimes diverted through illegal means, pose significant challenges to achieving optimal recycling rates. Moreover, electricity prices influence the economic feasibility of re-use initiatives, underscoring the interconnectedness of financial and environmental considerations.

Martin pointing at the laptop screen


Can you provide insights into the innovative recycling methodologies being explored within
the Quasar Project?


Currently, only the tip of the iceberg of EOL PV modules is going into recycling, whereof some components are simply shredded. For example, in Germany, round about 16.000 tons were recycled in 2023, while predictions initially estimated a minimum of 100.000 tons EOL PV. We see a similar situation in other European countries like France, Italy and in the Netherlands. While aluminum is easily recyclable, the glass and films of the modules are typically contaminated during shredding and processed into lower-grade products like glass wool or foam glass. Valuable materials such as silver and silicon are either shredded or burned, ultimately finding their way into the cement industry.
However, as part of our Quasar project, we’re striving for a more efficient and sustainable approach to recycling. Defective EOL modules are transported to our project partners #Rosi or #LuxChemTech, where we aim to improve the recycling process significantly. While recycling rates are already high today, they often involve “downcycling,” where the quality of materials degrades with each recycling cycle. In our project, we’re targeting a 70-90% increase in eco-efficiency, depending on the raw material. For example, our goal is to obtain high-quality, pure silicon that can be reused in the production of new PV modules. Not only will this enhance sustainability, but it will also reduce Europe’s dependence on China for these critical materials.
The EU Quasar project embodies the transition from linear to circular models of resource utilization, demonstrating the potential for transforming EOL PV modules into valuable secondary raw materials. Through strategic collaborations, innovative recycling methods, and a commitment to sustainability, initiatives like ours pave the way for a greener, more resilient energy future.

Thank you, Martin!

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