In Odessa, Texas, workers at a start-up called SolarCycle unload trucks carrying end-of-life photovoltaic panels freshly picked 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 separate the glass from the laminated materials that have helped generate electricity from sunlight for about a quarter of a century.
The panels are then ground, crushed and put through a proprietary process that extracts the valuable materials, primarily silver, copper and crystalline silicon. Those components will sell off, as will lower-value aluminum and glass, which may even end up in the next generation of solar panels.
This process offers a glimpse of what could happen with an expected increase in retired solar panels flowing from an industry that represents the fastest growing source of energy in the US Today, approximately 90 percent of the panels in the US has lost its efficiency. due to age, or being defective, they end up in landfills because that option costs a fraction to recycle.
But recycling advocates in the US say more reuse of valuable materials like silver and copper would help boost the circular economy, in which waste and pollution are reduced through consistent reuse of materials. . According to a 2021 report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), recycling photovoltaic panels could also reduce the risk of landfills leaking toxins into the environment; increase the stability of a supply chain that is highly dependent on imports from Southeast Asia; reduce the cost of raw materials for solar energy and other types of manufacturers; 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 factory that will use refurbished modules.
The prospect of a future glut of expiring panels is driving efforts by a handful of solar recyclers to address the mismatch between the current buildup of renewable energy capacity by utilities, cities, and private companies (every year more millions of panels worldwide) and a dearth of facilities that can safely handle this material when it reaches the end of its useful life, in about 25 to 30 years.
Solar capacity across all segments in the US is expected to increase by an average of 21 percent per year from 2023 to 2027, according to the latest quarterly report. report from the Solar Energy Industries Association and consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. The expected increase will be helped by the landmark Inflation Cut Act of 2022 which, among other supports for renewable energy, will provide a 30 percent tax credit for residential solar installations.
The area covered by the solar panels that have been installed in the US beginning in 2021 and will be removed in 2030 would cover about 3,000 football fields, according to an estimate by NREL. “It’s a fair amount of waste,” said Taylor Curtis, a legal and regulatory analyst for the lab. But the industry’s recycling rate of less than 10 percent falls far short of optimistic forecasts for industry growth. .
Jesse Simons, co-founder of SolarCycle, which employs about 30 people and started operations last December, said solid waste landfills typically charge $1 to $2 to accept a solar panel, rising to about $5 if the material is considered a dangerous waste. By contrast, his company charges $18 per panel. Customers are willing to pay that fee because they may not be able to find a landfill licensed 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 showing the benefits of panel recycling. For example, recycling aluminum uses 95 percent less energy than making virgin aluminum, which takes on the costs of extracting the raw material, bauxite, and then transporting and refining it.
The company estimates that recycling each panel prevents the emission of 97 pounds of CO2; the figure rises to more than 1.5 tons of CO2 if a panel is reused. Under a proposed rule by the Securities and Exchange Commission, publicly traded companies will be required to disclose climate-related risks that are likely to have a material impact on their business, including their greenhouse gas emissions.
Stripped from solar panels at the SolarCycle plant, aluminum is sold at a nearby metal yard. The glass currently sells for a few cents per panel for reuse in staples like bottles, but Simons hopes to have enough to sell at a higher price to a maker of new solar panel sheets.
Also worth recovering is crystalline silicon, used as the base material in solar cells, 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 only five US companies listed by the SEIA as capable of providing recycling services. The industry is still in its infancy and is still figuring out how to make money from the recovery and then sale of panel components, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. “Elements of this recycling process can be found in the United States United States, but it is not yet happening on a large scale,” the EPA said in a statement. general description of the industry
In 2016, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) forecast that by the early 2030s, the global number of decommissioned PV panels will equal around 4 percent of the number of installed panels. By the 2050s, the volume of solar panel waste will increase to at least 5 million metric tons a year, the agency said. China, the world’s largest producer of solar power, is expected to have retired a cumulative total of at least 13.5 million metric tons of panels by 2050, by far the most among the major solar-producing nations and nearly double the volume the US will withdraw by then, according to the IRENA report.
Technically recoverable raw materials from photovoltaic panels worldwide could have a cumulative value of $450 million (in 2016 terms) by 2030, according to the report, nearly equal to the cost of raw materials needed to produce some 60 million of new panels, or 18 gigawatts of power. generating capacity. By 2050, according to the report, the recoverable value could cumulatively exceed $15 billion.
For now, however, solar recyclers face significant economic, technological, and regulatory challenges. Part of the problem, says NREL’s Curtis, is a lack of data on panel recycling rates, making potential policy responses difficult that could provide more incentives for solar farm operators to recycle end-of-life panels. instead of discarding them.
Another problem is that the Toxicity Characteristics Leaching Procedure, an EPA-approved method used to determine whether a product or material contains hazardous elements that could leach into the environment, is known to be flawed. Consequently, some solar farm owners end up “over-managing” 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 handle hazardous waste or to recycle them.
The International Energy Agency assessed whether solar panels containing lead, cadmium and selenium would affect human health if dumped in municipal or hazardous waste landfills and found the risk to be low. Still, the agency said in a report 2020His findings did not constitute support for the dump: recycling, he claimed, would “further mitigate” environmental concerns.
NREL is currently studying an alternative process to determine whether or not the panels are dangerous. “We need to address that because it’s definitely affecting liability and cost to make recycling more competitive,” Curtis said.
Despite these uncertainties, four states recently enacted laws addressing the recycling of PV modules. California, which has the most solar installations, allows the panels to be disposed of in landfills, but only after they’ve been verified as non-hazardous by a designated lab, which can cost upwards of $1,500. As of July 2022, California only had one recycling plant that accepted solar panels.
In washington statea law designed to provide an environmentally sound way to recycle photovoltaic panels will be implemented in July 2025; New Jersey officials hope to issue a report on PV waste management this spring; other North Carolina has ordered state environmental officials to look into winding down utility-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, end-of-life photovoltaic panels have been treated, since 2012, as e-waste under the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, known as WEEE. The directive requires all member states to meet minimum standards, but the actual rate of e-waste recycling varies from country to country, said Marius Mordal Bakke, a senior analyst for solar energy provider research at Rystad Energy, a firm research center based in Oslo, Norway. . Despite this law, the EU’s PV recycling rate is no better than the US rate, around 10 percent, largely due to the difficulty of extracting valuable materials from the panels, he said. Bakke.
But he predicted that recycling will prevail when the number of end-of-life panels increases to the point where it presents a business opportunity, providing recyclers with valuable materials they can sell. Governments can help speed that transition, he added, by banning the disposal of photovoltaic panels in landfills and providing incentives such as tax breaks to anyone who uses solar panels.
“At some point in the future, you’re going to see enough panels being removed that you’re going to have to start recycling,” Bakke said. “It will become profitable on its own, regardless of commodity prices.”