At a time when urgency is key in our development of wind and solar power, with the aim of making our energy mix both greener and more diverse, comes the obvious question of how to recycle photovoltaic solar panels, which are a vital element in the production of competitive, carbon-free electricity. Good news: the French solar sector has got it sorted, and is showing excellent results!
For over a decade, the French solar sector has been growing at a spectacular rate. Although a solar park can produce electricity for over 20 years, its end of life has to be considered during the design phase, as part of an eco-design approach. With this in mind, players in the French solar sector accepted their responsibilities and set up special recycling channels for solar panels. These channels have achieved better results than Europe-wide targets (85% collection rate and 80% recycling rate for panel materials). The French state-approved eco-organisation Soren (previously PV Cycle France), set up in 2014 by players in the country’s solar sector, collects, sorts and recycles photovoltaic modules from facilities throughout France. These operations are paid for by an eco-contribution on every panel manufactured or imported in France, as soon as the facility is commissioned.
In 2019, Soren had collected some 5,000 tonnes of solar panels, 60% of which were sent to Europe’s largest industrial unit for recycling crystalline silicon modules in Rousset (Bouches-du-Rhône). There the panels are crushed and the different materials – glass, aluminium frames, connection housing, cables – are separated. These materials are then sorted extremely precisely and reused in other industrial sectors: for example, the glass is recovered as clean cullet and the plastic becomes recovered fuel for cement works.
In total, 94% of panel components are recovered, the remaining 6%, in the form of dust, is captured by filters and sometimes used as a substitute for sand in the construction industry. Other types of panel technology (such as cadmium telluride panels, which account for about 30% of volume) are sent to other specialist treatment plants.
To meet a rising photovoltaic sector, more treatment facilities were promised in July 2021. They will be located throughout the country, with a focus on high potential areas. The first, in the north of France, will be operational by the end of 2021, while the other two, in Gironde and Midi-Pyrénées, will be operational in summer 2022.
Solar panel recycling in France is an efficient industrial sector that creates jobs!
of crystalline photovoltaic cell components are recycled or recovered
average service life of a solar panel
of used solar panels in France by 2030