As millions of solar panels age out, recyclers hope to cash in

In Odessa, Texas, workers from a startup called SolarCycle unload trucks carrying end-of-life photovoltaic panels freshly salvaged from commercial solar farms across the United States. They separate the panels from the aluminum frames and electrical boxes, then feed them into machines that detach their glass from the laminated materials that have helped generate electricity from the sun for about a quarter of a century.

Then the panels are crushed, shredded and put through a patented process that extracts the valuable materials – primarily silver, copper and crystalline silicon. These components will be sold, as will lower-value aluminum and glass, which may even end up in the next generation of solar panels.

This process offers insight into what might happen to an expected increase in retired solar panels that will come from an industry that represents the fastest growing energy source in the United States. Today, approximately 90% of panels in the United States have lost their effectiveness. due to their age, or which are defective, end up in landfills because this option costs a fraction of recycling them.

But recycling advocates in the United States say increased reuse of valuable materials, like silver and copper, would help spur the circular economy, in which waste and pollution are reduced by constantly reusing materials. According to a 2021 report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), recycling photovoltaic panels could also reduce the risk of landfills releasing toxins into the environment; increase the stability of a supply chain that is heavily dependent on imports from Southeast Asia; reduce the cost of raw materials for manufacturers of solar energy and other types; and expand market opportunities for US recyclers.

Of course, reusing degraded but still functional panels is an even better option. Millions of these panels now end up in developing countries, while others are reused closer to home. For example, SolarCycle is building a power plant for its Texas plant that will use refurbished modules.

The prospect of a future glut of stale panels is prompting a handful of solar recyclers to work to address the mismatch between the current accumulation of renewable energy capacity by utilities, cities and private companies – from million panels are installed worldwide each year – and a lack of facilities capable of safely processing this material when it reaches the end of its useful life, which is around 25 to 30 years from now.

Solar capacity across all segments in the U.S. is expected to grow an average of 21% per year from 2023 to 2027, according to the latest quarterly report report the Solar Energy Industries Association and the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. The expected increase will be helped by the landmark 2022 Reducing Inflation Act which, among other support for renewables, will provide a 30% tax credit for residential solar installations.

Laminate removed from a solar panel is examined at SolarCycle’s facility in Odessa, Texas. The laminate contains silicon, copper and silver.
solar cycle

The area covered by the solar panels that were installed in the United States from 2021 and are due to be removed by 2030 would cover around 3,000 American football fields, according to an estimate by NREL. “That’s a good bit of waste,” said Taylor Curtis, a legal and regulatory analyst at the lab. But the industry’s recycling rate, at less than 10%, is far behind the industry’s optimistic growth forecasts.

Jesse Simons, co-founder of SolarCycle, which employs about 30 people and began operations last December, said solid waste landfills typically charge $1-2 to accept a solar panel, rising to about $5 if the material is considered hazardous waste. In contrast, his company charges $18 per panel. Customers are willing to pay this rate because they might not be able to find an authorized landfill to accept hazardous waste and take legal responsibility for it, and because they want to minimize the environmental impact of their old panels, said Simons, a former Sierra Club executive. .

SolarCycle provides its customers with an environmental analysis that shows the benefits of recycling panels. For example, recycling aluminum uses 95% less energy than manufacturing virgin aluminum, which bears the costs of extracting the raw material, bauxite, and then transporting and refining it.

The company estimates that recycling each panel saves 97 pounds of CO2 emissions; the figure rises to more than 1.5 tons of CO2 if a panel is reused. Under a proposed Securities and Exchange Commission rule, publicly traded companies will be required to disclose climate-related risks that are likely to materially impact their business, including their greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse.

Mined from solar panels at the SolarCycle factory, the aluminum is sold at a nearby metal yard. The glass is currently being sold for just pennies a panel to be repurposed into commodities like bottles, but Simons hopes there will eventually be enough to sell at a higher price to a maker of new solar panel sheets. .

Crystalline silicon, used as a base material in solar cells, is also worth recovering, he said. Although it must be refined for use in future panels, its use avoids the environmental impacts of mining and processing new silicon.

SolarCycle is one of five US companies listed by SEIA as capable of providing recycling services. The industry is still in its infancy and still looking to make money by salvaging and then selling panel components, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. “Elements of this recycling process can be found in the United States, but it is not yet happening on a large scale,” the EPA said in a statement. insight Of the industry.

In 2016, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) forecast that by the early 2030s, the global amount of photovoltaic panels retired will represent approximately 4% of the number of panels installed. By the 2050s, the volume of solar panel waste will reach at least 5 million metric tons per year, the agency said. China, the world’s largest producer of solar power, is expected to have removed a cumulative total of at least 13.5 million metric tons of panels by 2050, by far the largest amount among major solar producing nations. solar energy and almost double the volume that the United States will withdraw. at that time, according to the IRENA report.

Technically recoverable raw materials from photovoltaic panels worldwide could be worth a cumulative $450 million (in 2016 terms) by 2030, the report says, roughly equal to the cost of raw materials needed to produce some 60 million new panels, or 18 gigawatts of energy. generation capacity. By 2050, according to the report, the recoverable amount could exceed $15 billion.

For now, however, solar recyclers face significant economic, technological and regulatory challenges. Part of the problem, according to NREL’s Curtis, is a lack of data on panel recycling rates, which hampers potential policy responses that could further incentivize solar farm operators to recycle end-of-life panels rather than to throw them.

Another issue is that the Toxicity Trait Leaching procedure — an EPA-approved method used to determine if a product or material contains hazardous elements that could leach into the environment — is known to be flawed. As a result, some solar farm owners end up “over-grading” their panels as hazardous without making a formal hazardous waste determination, Curtis said. They end up paying more to dispose of them in landfills authorized to treat hazardous waste or recycle them.

The International Energy Agency has assessed whether solar panels containing lead, cadmium and selenium would impact human health if disposed of in hazardous or municipal waste landfills and determined that the risk is weak. Yet the agency said in a 2020 reporthis findings did not constitute an endorsement of landfill: recycling, he said, would “mitigate further” environmental concerns.

A pie chart of the various raw material values ​​in a solar panel, the most important of which is silver.

NREL is currently investigating an alternative process to determine whether the signs are unsafe or not. “We need to understand that because it definitely impacts liability and cost to make recycling more competitive,” Curtis said.

Despite these uncertainties, four states have recently enacted PV module recycling laws. California, which has the most solar installations, allows the panels to be thrown into landfills, but only after they have been verified as non-hazardous by a designated lab, which can cost up to $1,500. As of July 2022, California had only one recycling plant that accepted solar panels.

In washington statea law designed to provide an environmentally friendly way to recycle photovoltaic panels is due to be implemented in July 2025; New Jersey officials plan to release a report on PV waste management this spring; And North Carolina ordered state environmental officials to study the dismantling of large-scale solar projects. (North Carolina currently requires solar panels to be disposed of as hazardous waste if they contain heavy metals such as silver or, in the case of older panels, hexavalent chromium, lead, cadmium and arsenic.)

In the European Union, photovoltaic panels at the end of their life have, since 2012, been treated as electronic waste under the European directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment, known as WEEE. The directive requires all member states to comply with minimum standards, but the actual rate of e-waste recycling varies from country to country, said Marius Mordal Bakke, principal analyst for solar supplier research at Rystad Energy, a research company based in Oslo, Norway. . Despite this law, the EU’s PV recycling rate is no better than the US rate – around 10% – largely because of the difficulty of extracting valuable materials from the panels, Bakke said.

But he predicted that recycling will become more widespread when the number of end-of-life panels increases to the point of presenting a business opportunity, providing recyclers with valuable materials they can sell. Governments can help accelerate this transition, he added, by banning the disposal of photovoltaic panels in landfills and offering incentives such as tax breaks to anyone who uses solar panels.

“At some point in the future, you’ll see enough decommissioned panels that you kind of have to start recycling,” Bakke said. “It will become profitable on its own, regardless of commodity prices.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top