Over the past five years, it has become more likely to see solar panels covering a field or twinkling on a rooftop near you. The industry grew 33 percent each year on average over the past 10 years, with cumulative solar installations nearly doubling over the past five.
This growth will certainly accelerate thanks to a big boost in funding of the federal climate bill, which directs $30 billion toward renewable energy over the next decade.
But what will happen when these photovoltaic panels reach the end of their life, 25-30 years old in the future? interest in question about the recycling of panels has grown alongside the increase in solar installations, but experts say the solar panel collection and teardown industry is still nascent and not evenly distributed across the United States. And reuse and refurbishment options – the most sustainable of circular economy strategies – are even less accessible.
Making solar panel recycling more common will take a mix of technological advancements, economic incentives, and smart policies at the state and federal levels. And most importantly, experts say, all of this behind-the-scenes work must result in a simple, one-stop solution for solar developers and owners, many of whom currently don’t pay much attention to panel recycling.
“Let’s not complicate it, because otherwise people are less inclined to recycle,” said Evelyn Butler, vice president of technical services for the Solar Energy Industries Association, a nonprofit trade association.
Commercially available resources for solar panel recycling in the United States have not advanced much in recent years, according to those interviewed for this article.
“There’s been quite a bit of activity, but I would say it’s still very slow in terms of its overall growth,” Butler said.
Garvin Heath, Distinguished Research Staff Member of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), said a handful of companies – including First Solar, Cascade Eco Minerals and solar cycle – offer end-of-life services to solar developers, but there isn’t enough demand for the service yet to spur more growth.
It costs more to dismantle a panel and recover the raw materials than the raw materials themselves are worth.
Until economies of scale kick in, solar recycling remains a low-margin business that doesn’t justify investing in new technologies — some of which are available, but not yet commercially implemented, a said Heath.
“The reason you don’t see more companies recycling solar panels is because the economy doesn’t make sense,” said AJ Orben, vice president of We Recycle Solar, a company specializing in the business. “It costs more to dismantle a panel and recover the raw materials than the raw materials themselves are worth.”
In fact, Orben’s business derives most of its revenue from environmental consulting and other services; the recycling part of the business loses money.
With the panels it receives, We Recycle Solar separates the glass from the metals, sends the metals to refineries, and shreds the glass before it is transported to a processing plant. The semiconductors are melted down and used in future solar applications, Orben said.
Heath said it’s fairly common: metal and glass are the two most common materials recovered from solar panels, with smaller elements, such as silicon solar cells, rarely finding a second use. Ultimately, most recycling companies are interested in a single material, Butler said, which means even recyclers who accept solar panels could end up extracting a primary material before sending the rest of the panel to another company.
Laws and disclaimers
There is a big regulatory hurdle standing in the way of potential solar recycling. In most parts of the United States, solar panels are classified as hazardous waste. This severely limits the number of recyclers willing to accept solar panels, due to strict regulations and testing requirements.
the state of california solar panels requalified two years ago as “universal waste“, a category that also houses batteries and light bulbs. Orben said this opens the door for more waste handlers – already licensed for universal waste – to accept solar panels. They may end up just storing the panels and ship them to a more qualified recycler, but Orben said that creates more opportunities to divert panels from landfills.
Heath said NREL also dedicates some of its research strength to policy issues. On the one hand, it is studying new waste classification standards. But Heath said he also wanted to develop standards for panel reuse and refurbishment, particularly in grid-connected applications.
“It’s a much bigger market than using off-grid used solar modules,” Heath said, referring to DIY. use of panels on homes, mobiles or otherwise. “There are only a limited number of ‘van-life’ vans on which to install photovoltaic modules.”
In other words: creating safety standards for refurbished panels could allow them a second life in large-scale solar projects. “It’s something that needs more attention,” Heath said.
A rude awakening
Then there is, of course, the problem that most solar homeowners and developers aren’t fully aware of panel end-of-life options.
A common misconception, Orben said, is that owners of solar installations will compare the cost of solar recycling to the cost of landfilling — a false choice.
“When people do their cost comparisons, they’re not doing an apples-to-apples comparison,” Orben said, because in most places it’s illegal to throw signs in a landfill (again, through waste classification). “Really what they have to compare is the cost of recycling, for example, hazardous waste treatment, which is considerably more expensive.”
Heath and Butler both agree that the public also needs a better understanding of non-recycling options: reuse and refurbish.
“In the circular economy space, recycling has received by far the most attention. Recycling is not the only circular economy strategy,” Heath said.
Enel North America, a renewable energy company with a global presence, is a solar developer focusing on some of these no-recycling strategies.
What we seek to do is extend the life of assets as long as possible. It is not because a photovoltaic panel is not efficient that it cannot be used in an industrial or commercial application.
“What we’re looking to do is extend the life of assets for as long as possible,” said Peter Perrault, company director and head of circular economy. “Just because a photovoltaic panel does not perform well does not mean that it cannot be used in an industrial or commercial application. … We always want to extend the useful life of these materials, before we consider the recycling.”
Most of Enel’s facilities in North America are far from that point anyway; the oldest was installed in 2012. But Perrault said Enel is committed to panel maintenance – which extends their lifespan – and secondary applications. The company sees this as an essential part of its Scope 3 sustainability strategy.
Indeed, there are clear environmental and economic benefits to extending the life of panels, rather than breaking them down and creating new ones. Heath did some to research on this, but said more focus was needed on this area, particularly on how to make new technologies commercially viable. One such technology could allow recyclers to use the crystalline silicon components in panels, Heath said.
“Technology development alone does not guarantee that these technologies will be adopted in the market. And it is only when they are adopted in the market that we improve results,” he said. “We can’t just invent technologies, we have to make sure they have the right economics.” (And not just economics; these technologies also need the right policy environments to succeed).
The economics of recycling or reusing solar energy is likely to come as a nasty surprise to many solar plant owners, Orben said, because most don’t budget for any kind of end-of-life services.
He’s confident recyclers such as his own company could grow as demand for the service grows, but he’s not so sure the public is ready to see the price.
“They’re going to have a rude awakening,” Orben said.