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Is Now the Time to Tackle Solar Panel Recycling & the Industry’s Waste Problem?

image credit: Green Clean Solar
Emilie O'Leary's picture
Owner & CEO Green Clean Solar
  • Member since 2022
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  • Apr 11, 2022
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We love solar energy; it’s a cost-effective way to replace fossil fuel dependency and reduce carbon emissions - which is why we need more solar projects! But at the end of a solar panel’s 30-year life, there are some materials that deserve reclamation in the aftermarket. Many of these aged panels will be replaced ahead of their end-of-life(EOL) estimations. By 2050, we’re expected to reach about 88 million tons of solar panel waste.

 

While this poses a dilemma, it’s a great problem to solve - it means solar is exponentially growing, and we’re doing things right on the front end. Now, it’s time to make our great work full circle and go beyond our current estimated 10% solar materials recycling and recovery rate.

 

Reducing carbon by diverting solar waste from landfills

One of the core goals of many solar projects is the reduction of carbon. One way to take that full mission scale is to manage the back-end waste for each and every installation. When solar waste heads to the landfill, it contributes to carbon emissions at a rate of about 2,039 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent for every 205 tons of solar PV waste. But we can change that.

The U.S. solar industry needs full-scope solar project recycling. Accelerating the development of solar projects supports a future of decarbonization. We are seeing efforts by the solar industry that will help correct the threat of climate change, offset energy costs, and reduce the environmental impacts.

 

How did we get here? A brief solar growth history

  • Necessity and crisis are the parents of the invention when it comes to solar as we know it today - the 1970s oil crisis gave rise to the creation of silicon from various crystals for the influx of more investments in solar research. This inception gave way to multi-crystalline solar panels, which allowed more people to buy and install since they are cheaper materials. If it weren’t for this new creation, solar panels would not be used as much as they are today.

  • People wanted more solar, and In the 1980s, the sun gods heard and delivered the first megawatt-scale solar project in California. We wouldn’t have mass adoption if it weren’t for Pacific Gas & Electric in 1983 to become the first U.S. utility to support “distributed systems” in California.

  • Let us not forget 1998, which let us want to party like it's 1999. The first flexible thin-film product was labeled as a solar shingle for BIPV use.

  • By the time the 2000s came to play, we had worldwide solar PV installations surpass 1 GW, and the U.S. alone hit 1 GW in 2008, surpassing 25 GW in 2015. We can be proud the 2000s saw the fourth largest rooftop solar system in the world, as well as the largest rooftop solar system in the U.S.

  • The future of solar is undeniably brighter; we are storing up for a renewable energy blast that may become the second largest generation energy source. We will continue to see an acceleration in solar PV, declining solar PV project costs, more options for solar financing, increasing supportive policies, incentives, and many socio-economic benefits.

  • Now, the solar industry experiences year after year growth and expansion into new sectors – leading us to the inevitable solar waste challenge.

The solar adoption hurdle surpassed

Solar energy was once an arduous concept that required a lot of convincing. Now, it is the go-to renewable energy source, being incorporated with confidence in many sustainability initiatives and carbon reduction goals. As ESG reporting and recycling mandates evolve, so too will the solar industry, yet again.

We are at the precipice of a grand early replacement era, as the financial benefit of installing more efficient panels outweighs keeping old panels live for the entire length of their life. The waste from reinstallation and new installations is creating a dilemma for the industry - what to do with all the used panels and the increased packaging waste that comes along with mass adoption and replacement.

 

Solar waste is not just about solar panels

Shipping solar panels and necessary materials to a job site requires some hefty packaging to keep panels intact, safe, and prevent breaking. These either horizontal or vertically stacked panels are protected in massive-sized carton boxes, wooden crates, and corrugated cardboard boxes, then covered in plastic, leaving a messy situation to clean up after installation.

 

As with any linear economy manufactured product, end-of-life disposal is an afterthought. Heavy metals and possibly toxic components can end up in the landfill and leach chemicals into local water. Changing the system as a whole into a curricular economy production and recycling - by doing this, we can keep precious materials and toxic chemicals out of landfills.

Integrating waste-reduction goals into solar business goals

Diverting end of project solar waste material from landfills, including packaging, will improve ESG waste reporting metrics and goals (link to white paper). Getting ahead of compliance measures will help projects stand out and shine now. Supply chain, packaging, and waste management are considerations now being made to future-proof projects. Waste diversion for solar installs and cleanups is meaningful for business strength, sales, overall sustainability message, and full scope install offerings. It’s only a matter of time until solar upgrades require waste in ESG reporting since waste is and has been such a major concern.

 

Room for powerful improvements

The EU recycling rate for solar panels is currently 95%. The mandate for manufacturers to recycle used solar panels is to be credited. Funds are further used to explore expanding recycling and make the solar industry a circular economy. In 2017, the state of Washington passed mandates requiring manufacturers to take accountability in recycling aged or unused solar panels. Similar national efforts will decrease recycling costs and improve systems across the country. In the meantime, companies like Green Clean Solar and our partners will be helping solar sites clean up quickly and responsibly.

 

The original article was posted at:

 

Emilie O'Leary's picture
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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 12, 2022

You mention that public policies much usher this area along-- is that more from a funding perspective or from the government mandate that it has to be integrated into solar development plans? 

Emilie O'Leary's picture
Emilie O'Leary on May 11, 2022

A bit of both, Matt. Manufacturers have a great opportunity to incorporate programs that support customers with end-of-life recycling. Government mandates will help systematize the process and eventually lower the cost where this falls short.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Apr 18, 2022

"Is Now the Time to Tackle Solar Panel Recycling & the Industry’s Waste Problem?"

You bet it is.  

Management of the waste needs to be part of the manufacturing, marketing and installation processes, regardless of government support.  Nothing could more easily give the development  of more and better solar a terrible "black eye" than seeing old solar equipment pile up in landfills.

If the US does not follow the the EU lead, or even improve on requirements to reduce and recycle materials, it will come back to bite our collective backsides. The wind power industry seems to have woken up to the issue with respect to wind turbine blades.  But they have not sufficiently addressed the problem yet. And it is hurting them.

Thanks very much Emilie for highlighting this important issue.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 18, 2022

It has seemed like a ticking time bomb. Really, the end of life should be built into the process from installation so owners of systems already know what the plan is when they reach that point. Hopefully that will come about in future installations and we can just deal with this first wave of retirements as best as possible. 

Emilie O'Leary's picture
Emilie O'Leary on May 11, 2022

You're spot on, Mark. It's time to catch up. Thanks for your input.

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