Building a solar panel recycling ecosystem

In 2020, U.S. solar power capacity grew to an estimated 97.2 gigawatts, enough to power the equivalent of 18 million average-sized American homes. The current solar boom, with a record 23% growth the last year, has exceeded all expectations even through this pandemic year. In fact, renewables were the only growth sector across energy in 2020.

Solar panels are far more durable than most of the products we use today. While some detractors believe that solar panels may be replaced ahead of time with new and more energy efficient panels, this is a misconception. Early replacement does not result in greater savings or increased energy efficiency and solar solutions providers are largely committed to educate their customers and empower them with the choices that suit their household needs best. Most solar panels come with a guarantee of at least 25 years and continue to work at as much as 90% of their efficiency for many years after. There are solar panels installed even 40 years ago that are still working efficiently.

But these panels will, in time, need a more sophisticated recycling ecosystem than what exists today. Almost all of our energy needs will be met by solar and other renewables within 25 years and at that point, it will be important to ensure that we are ready with solutions for how we deal with end-of-life solar panels and components.

100% recycling of solar panels is the future (and present)

The solar panel recycling industry needs to be encouraged and given a major impetus to grow alongside the solar power revolution, as an inextricable part of it. Solar providers need to partner with customers through the life cycle of the solutions they offer. Studies have already shown that between 95 to 100 percent of the materials in a solar panel are recyclable and reusable. Efforts to get this recycling ecosystem in place are already ongoing worldwide.

Lotus Energy, Australia’s first solar panel recycling facility, was set up in record time in Thomastown, Melbourne and is now fully operational. The plant is able to 100% recycle end-of-life solar PV modules and even associated materials—inverters, cables, optimizers, mounting structures—using no chemicals. Australia is investing in its clean future and sees creating this and other programs for solar panel recycling as a necessary move to encourage and incentivize the adoption of clean energy.

In Europe, EU regulations already require 80% recycling of the materials used in PV panels, which was extended to solar products in 2012. An Industrial plant in Rousset, France is already able to exceed these directives with a material recovery rate of 94.7%.

In America, traditional recycling centers that can take apart a television set are not equipped to handle solar panel recycling yet. But that is changing. Washington State has been the first in the U.S. to require solar PV manufacturers to finance the takeback and recycling of panels at no cost to their owners, while meeting specified recycling standards. This could provide a major boost to the solar panel recycling industry. In California, a small regulatory move by the state to change the way solar waste is classified is expected to make the recycling process more efficient and sustainable.

Both states have taken the first big steps towards ensuring that solar energy remains green at every stage, including after the end of life of the solar panels and puts the responsibility for this in the hands of the manufacturers. This is a globally approved model that is proven to result in growth and transformation in the recycling sector.

There are manufacturers and recyclers working on industry-led solutions too. First Solar is one U.S. manufacturer that recycles its own panels. The PV Cycle Association has tailor-made waste management solutions for solar energy equipment, batteries and e-waste. SEIA continues to build its National Recycling Program with Preferred Recycling Partners. Cascade Eco Minerals, a division of Dlubak Glass, is the most notable partner thus far.

As solar energy is poised to grow exponentially, the solar panel recycling industry needs to scale up to match the demand that is coming its way. Today, by pound, it costs about $14 to $18 per module, according to Cascade. Yet, with visionary government engagement and properly implemented legislation alongside the incentivization and investment of the private sector, the American solar panel recycling industry is a breakthrough waiting to happen. With these measures in place, the solar revolution will eventually result in a circular economy where 100% of solar components can be recycled or reused efficiently and sustainably.

Over 840 million people worldwide still do not have access to electricity. Around the world, solar technology is seen as a vital tool to help the lowest income families access important utilities and become energy independent without resorting to polluting fossil fuels. In the fight against climate change, it’s important that America leads the way in going solar, with innovative policies making it easier for more and more people and communities across the country to make this transition to sustainable energy.

Alex Williams is a Founding Partner of Solar Energy Partners.

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