Nicolas DefrenneChief Executive Officer of PV Cycle France
"Given the considerable global development of solar photovoltaics (PV), panel recycling is becoming a high-stakes issue. "
Collecting Used Panels – The Role of an Eco-Organization
Given the considerable global development of solar photovoltaics (PV), panel recyclingAny waste treatment process that uses materials from identical or similar end-of-life products or manufacturing waste to produce new products. is becoming a high-stakes issue. Nicolas Defrenne, Chief Executive Officer of PV Cycle France, explains the role of eco‑organizations in the life cycle of solar equipment.
To start with, it should be noted that a “used photovoltaic panel” means a panel that its owner wants to dispose of, whether it still works or not. The current crystalline panels have a guaranteed minimum efficiency of 25 to 30 years. However, users often want to discard them earlier, either because they would benefit from more efficient panels, as technology is rapidly improving, or for a number of other reasons.
I often give the example of a disused airfield whose soil was polluted from jet fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... , making it unsuitable for farming. The local authorities in charge leased this disused industrial site to a developer on a 20-year contract. A solar farm has been set up while the fallow land recovers. At the end of the lease, the panels will be recycled. So we should talk about the period of use, not the lifespan.
The photovoltaic sector has been booming since the beginning of the century. Today, we are witnessing the arrival of the first generation of used panels. The amount collected is going to keep growing. In 2018, we accumulated almost 3,400 metric tons in France, nearly ten times more than in 2015. In the same year, 72,000 metric tons of new panels were installed. By 2030, 150,000 metric tons of panels should be reaching the end of their useful lives. That is the equivalent of 15 Eiffel Towers!
How Collection is Organized
In most European countries, eco-organizations were set up to collect and recycle waste from the sector. In France, this role falls to PV Cycle France, which is governed by seven entities (companies, industry associations and nonprofit organizations) operating in the photovoltaic sector.
Collection, which is free for the panel owners, is similar to that of other waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). Take a look at your phone – there is a crossed-out trash can symbol on the back. The same image is also found on photovoltaic panels, which need to be brought to one of 200 partner collection points in France. For quantities of more than 40 panels, panel owners send us a request online1 and we charter trucks to go and pick up the equipment.
Once collected, the equipment is sent to treatment centers that we select following a call for tenders. We chose Véolia from our tender. The company developed the first photovoltaic panel recycling unit in the world with a capacity of 3,000 metric tons per year. We expect that we will need a second processing unit by 2021. A particularly high percentage of photovoltaic panels can be recovered – almost 95% for a siliconSilicon crystals come from silica, the main compound in quartz and sand. Silicon is a semi-conducting material. ‑based module with an aluminum frame.
Like all WEEE, the recycling is financed by the eco-contribution transparently included in the price of each new piece of equipment sold. It works a little like a pay-as-you-go pension system: the eco-contribution you pay finances the recycling of equipment that has just reached the end of its useful life rather than the equipment you have just bought. It is up to us to ensure the system is well managed over the years...
Economic and Environmental Criteria
Protecting the environment and properly managing consumers’ money are at the core of our four decision-making criteria, which are as follows:
- Economic: the consumer is paying, so we need a recycling channel with controlled costs.
- Technical: recycling must be optimal and recover as much material as possible (glass, aluminum, cables, etc.) to promote a truly circular economy.
- Environmental: recycling must not have a significant negative impact, i.e., from toing and froing of trucks or excessive energy consumption in the treatment plant. It must comply with the most stringent quality standards.
- Social and inclusive: we give preference to service providers who help bring people back into the workforce.
Lastly, we try to promote eco-design. This involves taking the environmental impactAny change to the environment, whether adverse or beneficial, wholly or partially resulting from human activity... into account right from the design stage of the product or service, and then throughout all stages of its life cycle.
Our work is at the crossroads of the energy transition and the circular economy. We believe that one cannot exist without the other.
Nicolas Defrenne, 34, has been Chief Executive Officer of PV Cycle France since 2015. A graduate of Sciences Po, he worked at France Stratégie and the economic department of the French embassy in Hong Kong before joining Ernst and Young (EY). He then founded a start-up in the recycling industry.