Solar Energy Growth Fuels Need For Recycling

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As we wrote last week, the Inflation Reduction Act is expected to spur renewable energy adoption and manufacturing in the U.S. This is welcome news since the vast majority of solar panels have long been manufactured overseas, often in less than stellar conditions. However, the rapid solar panel growth in the U.S. fuels a new concern: What do we do with the waste?

We’ve written about this problem before. Solar panels are manufactured using toxic elements like lead and cadmium. If placed in a landfill, the panels can break, and these chemicals can leach into groundwater. This isn’t clean or sustainable. And with the U.S. expected to have 1 million metric tons of solar panel waste by 2030, we need a viable option for recycling solar panels that have reached the end of their lifespan. 

While there is significant interest in solar panel recycling, very few resources are available. Solar panel recycling is expensive, and it’s hard to convince companies to commit to a money-losing endeavor. Additionally, solar panels are classified as “hazardous waste,” which significantly restricts the number of businesses willing or able to accept them. 

“The reason you do not see more companies doing solar panel recycling is because the economics don’t make sense,” says AJ Orben, vice president at We Recycle Solar. “It costs more to break a panel down and recover the raw materials than what the raw materials themselves are worth.” 

We Recycle Solar’s business model relies on environmental consulting and other services to turn a profit. Its solar recycling service remains a money-loser. Of the panels that do get recycled, usually only the glass and metal in each panel find a second life. Smaller components, like solar cells, rarely get reused. 

However, multiple projects in the works will hopefully make solar recycling more economical. For instance, a California-based startup called SolarCycle claims it can extract 95% of the most valuable materials, like silver, silicon, copper and aluminum, from solar panels and sell them off for a profit. SolarCycle has partnered with Sunrun, one of the largest solar service providers in the U.S, which will hopefully allow the company to recycle at scale. However, this startup is still in its early stages, and it’s unclear whether the economics will work out long-term. 

First Solar, a leading U.S. solar manufacturer, has been recycling its panels since 2005. Once the company realized the challenges, it updated its panel design with recycling. The recycled materials can be used for new panels while the glass goes to other manufacturers. A study from the International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that these materials could reach $15 billion in value by 2050.

Washington state has implemented a first-of-its-kind extended producer responsibility (EPR) program. The program requires manufacturers to fund the collection and recycling of solar panels. However, waste services fear Washington has jumped the gun on its regulations, noting that there are currently no recycling centers for solar waste in the state. 

“A fair amount of people call us to say, ‘hey, what can I do with my panels?’ and we don’t have a lot of good answers for them right now,” says Al Salvi, solid waste technical services unit supervisor for Washington Department of Ecology.

For solar energy to be sustainable, we need a viable way to deal with waste products. That means making recycling economical and feasible for consumers and businesses alike. Only then can solar energy be truly “green.”