How to solve the challenge of utility solar construction waste right now

Inovateus Solar recycling
Panels on their way to the recycling facility. Source: Green Clean Solar.

The solar industry is becoming increasingly aware that to be truly sustainable, we must find a way to reduce waste. But to date, most discussions have focused on recycling panels at the end of their lifespan. While that’s an essential effort, an often overlooked opportunity comes much earlier in the solar life cycle: solar construction sites.

In an Inovateus Solar webinar earlier this year, we outlined the challenges of utility solar construction waste and new solutions that are emerging.

Quantifying solar site waste

It’s standard for about 1 to 5 percent of solar modules to be damaged during a construction project. That may not sound like much, but for a utility-scale site, it could mean thousands of damaged panels and tens of thousands in dollar value.

Even a smaller project can generate a large amount of waste, and that goes beyond broken panels. Wooden pallets, crates and cardboard make up a big portion of construction waste. Other waste items include racks, nuts, bolts and leftover spools and cable.

Managing this waste is challenging for a number of reasons:

  • Lack of awareness or solutions. Either solutions are not readily available or people don’t know about them. Finding the available solutions takes a significant amount of effort and time, which solar developers don’t have.
  • Varying or limited recycling options: Recycling facilities vary in terms of the materials they will accept and specific requirements for the materials. In theory, up to 95 percent of the material in solar modules can be recycled, but many facilities recycle just the aluminum components, which is only about 20 percent of a panel.
  • Distance between sites and recycling centers: Utility-scale solar sites are in remote locations, hours away from resources for recycling. Hauling generates carbon emissions and can be expensive, especially with today’s fuel prices.
  • Lack of regulations: Both the United States and individual states lag behind Europe in terms of solar recycling and reuse regulations.
  • Manufacturing issues: Manufacturers may use excessive packaging or plastics that can’t be recycled.

Best practices to reduce

wooden pallet recycling
Wooden pallets being crushed to reduce pallet waste by 70 percent. Source: Green Clean Solar.

Given these challenges, we’ve identified some best practices to help you make the most of the resources that are available today, while preparing for an even brighter future for solar waste reduction.

Partner with manufacturers. It all starts with manufacturing. Many manufacturers have not given much thought to recycling and reuse. Others rely on nonexistent regulations. As an industry, we need to work with manufacturers to establish recycling programs as well as programs for buying back panels or giving credit on materials for the next solar project. We must push manufacturers to use materials that can be recycled in the United States and, in the spirit of reducing before recycling, to reduce packaging and consider options like the reusable PVpallet.

Plan ahead. Planning begins even before you start a project. First, identify the materials that can be recycled, repurposed, reused or sold to secondary markets — generally cardboard, plastic, metal, wood and, of course, solar modules. Second, research the recyclers in your region and start getting bids. A company like Green Clean Solar, which has done extensive research and is building a national database of options, can help you do this.

Next up, plan for the specific requirements of recycling and waste management. For example, cardboard must be delivered dry to the recycler, so it should be protected from rain and damp conditions at the construction site. Waste that can’t be recycled must follow the EPA’s hazardous waste guidelines, using a process known as the Toxicity Characteristics Leaching Procedure (TCLP) to test for hazardous materials. Being aware in advance of these requirements will set you up for successful waste reduction.

Budget for recycling — it might not add cost! Just as you would add a line item in your budget for any other aspect of a solar project, be sure to include recycling. This won’t always mean added costs. Recycling is getting more cost effective and can potentially save you dumpster, hauling and landfill costs. Inovateus has found it’s possible to break even or save money by implementing a well thought out recycling program. If that’s not possible for your project, be sure to account for any expected costs.

Work with local recycling and repurposing partners. Recyclers have different offerings and requirements, so you need to work with what’s available in your area. In addition to Green Clean Solar, has good resources that can save you research time. An often-overlooked option is to partner with companies outside of the solar or recycling industries — such as landscapers and waste specialists — who can repurpose materials for a secondary market.

Take wooden crates and pallets, for example. Green Clean Solar has been contacted by landscapers who use wooden crates to make mulch. The wooden crates and pallets that don’t find a home can be crushed by 70 percent before going in the landfill, saving hauling costs and landfill space. A company whose sole purpose is to grind wooden pallets into mulch that it sells as biofuel likely hasn’t thought about working with solar developers.

We need to reach out to more of these potential partners to raise awareness of the opportunities for collaboration.

Build community relations with environmental stewardship and jobs. While some communities embrace utility-scale solar projects, which provide revenue and tax benefits, they may be concerned about the waste generated. Involving the community and letting them know what to expect is worth your while. Community members may link you to resources you didn’t even know were available, and being upfront about the project can improve community relations. To this end, it’s also a good practice to hire locals when you can for both construction and waste management.

Assign a dedicated team to deal with waste. To ensure efficient processes and adequate knowledge, make waste reduction part of your company’s sustainability strategy. Inovateus has incorporated waste reduction as a key pillar of its best practices for sustainable solar development, which also include:

  • Designing systems to maximize power per square foot and lower impact on the land
  • Creating pollinator habitats to improve soil health and allow the land to revert to fertile farmland
  • Working with eco-friendly manufacturers.

Time’s a wastin’

While solar waste management is still in its infancy, it’s picking up steam quickly. The EPA launched a five-year initiative to deal with the end of life of solar panels, and SEIA has established an end-of-life group that’s working on solutions with a number of states. The DOE’s Solar Energy Technology Office (SETO) is providing funding to research solar module recycling. Waste management companies are starting to see the benefit of partnering with the solar industry. With so many new opportunities, there’s never been a better time to tackle solar waste.

Tyler Kanczuzewski is VP of sustainability for Inovateus Solar. Emilie O’Leary is CEO of Green Clean Solar. For more details on solutions for utility solar construction waste, view the full webinar right here.

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