Over the past five years, it has become more likely to see solar panels covering a field or flickering on a roof near you. The industry grew by 33 percent each year on average over the past 10 years, with cumulative solar installations nearly doubling in the past five.
That growth will almost certainly accelerate thanks to a big boost in funding from the federal Climate Act, which is directing $30 billion toward renewable energy over the next decade.
But what will happen when these solar panels reach the end of their life, 25-30 years in the future? Interest in the issue of panel recycling has grown alongside the rise of solar installations, but experts say the solar panel collection and dismantling industry is still nascent and not evenly distributed across the United States. And the opportunities for recycling and renovation – the more sustainable circular economy strategies – are even less available.
Making solar panel recycling more common will require a mix of technological advances, financial incentives, and smart policies at the state and federal levels. And crucially, experts say, all this behind-the-scenes work must result in a simple, one-stop solution for solar developers and owners, many of whom currently don’t consider panel recycling at all.
“Let’s not make it complicated, because otherwise people are less likely to recycle,” said Evelyn Butler, vice president of technical services for the Solar Energy Industries Association, a nonprofit trade association.
The commercially available resources for solar panel recycling in the United States have not advanced significantly in recent years, according to those interviewed for this article.
“There has 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, senior research staff member at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), said a handful of companies — notably First Solar, Cascade Eco Minerals and Solar Cycle — offer end-of-life services to solar developers, but there is not yet sufficient demand. after the service to encourage more growth.
It costs more to break down a panel and recover the raw materials than what the raw materials themselves are worth.
Until economies of scale kick in, solar recycling remains a low-margin business that doesn’t justify investment in new technologies — some of which are available but not yet deployed commercially, Heath said.
“The reason you don’t see more companies recycling solar panels is because the economics don’t make sense,” said AJ Orben, vice president at We Recycle Solar, a company focused on this activity. “It costs more to break down a panel and recover the raw materials than what the raw materials themselves are worth.”
In fact, Orben’s business generates the majority of its revenue from environmental consulting and other services; the recycling piece in the business is a money-loser.
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 goes to a processing plant. The semiconductors are melted down and used in future solar energy applications, Orben said.
Heath said this is fairly common: The metal and glass are the two most common materials recovered from solar panels, with the smaller items — such as the silicon solar cells — rarely finding another use. At the end of the day, most recycling companies are interested in a single material, Butler said, meaning that even those recyclers who accept solar panels may end up extracting a primary material before sending the rest of the panel to a other company.
Laws and landfills
There is a major regulatory barrier standing in the way of potential solar recycling. In most parts of the United States, solar panels are classified as hazardous waste. This greatly limits the number of recyclers willing to accept solar panels due to strict regulations and testing requirements.
The state of California two years ago reclassified solar panels as “universal waste,” a category that is also home to batteries and light bulbs. Orben said this opens the door for more waste handlers — already permitted for universal waste — to accept solar panels. They may end up simply storing the panels and sending 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 muscle to policy issues. First, it examines new standards for waste classification. But Heath said it also wants to develop standards for recycling and refurbishing panels, particularly in grid-connected applications.
“It’s a much bigger market than the off-grid use of used solar modules,” Heath said, referring to the do-it-yourself use of panels in the home, mobile or otherwise. “There are only so many ‘van-life’ vans to put PV modules on.”
In other words: Creating safety standards for refurbished panels can give them a new lease of life in utility-scale solar projects. “It’s something that needs more attention,” Heath said.
A rude awakening
Then, of course, there is the problem that most solar cell owners and developers are not quite up-to-speed with end-of-life options for panels.
A common misconception, Orben said, is that solar owners will compare the cost of solar recycling to the cost of landfill disposal — a wrong choice.
“When people make their comparisons in terms of cost, they’re not making an apples-to-apples comparison,” Orben said, because in most places it’s illegal to dispose of panels in a landfill (again, thanks to the waste classification). “In reality, what they have to compare is the cost of recycling for, say, hazardous waste treatment, which is monumentally more expensive.”
Heath and Butler both agree that the public also needs a better understanding of the non-recycling options: recycling and refurbishing.
“In the circular economy, 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 non-recycling strategies.
What we want to do is extend the life of the assets as long as possible. Just because a PV panel is not utility grade does not mean it cannot be used in an industrial or commercial application.
“What we want to do is extend the life of the assets as long as possible,” said Peter Perrault, the company’s director and head of circular economy. “Just because a PV panel isn’t utility grade doesn’t mean it can’t be used in an industrial or commercial application. … We always want to extend the life of these materials before considering recycling.”
Most of Enel’s installations in North America are nowhere near that point anyway; the oldest was installed in 2012. But Perrault said Enel is committed to panel maintenance — which extends their life — and secondary applications. The company sees it as an essential part of its scope-three sustainability strategy.
In fact, there are obvious environmental and economic benefits to extending the life of the panels instead of breaking them down and creating new ones. Heath has done some research into this, but said there needs to be more focus in this area – particularly on how to make new technologies commercially viable. Such technology could allow recyclers to make use of the crystalline silicon components in panels, Heath said.
“Development of technologies alone does not ensure that these technologies will be adopted in the market. And only when they are adopted in the market will we have an improvement in 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 political environments to succeed).
The economics of solar recycling or recycling will likely be an unwelcome surprise to many solar owners, Orben said, because most don’t budget for any end-of-life services.
He’s confident that recycling businesses like his own can scale up as demand for the services increases, but he’s not so sure the public is ready to see the price tag.
“They’re in for a rude awakening,” Orben said.