The United States is on the verge of its most consequential change since the New Deal. Read more about what it takes to decarbonize an economy, and what gets in the way, here. This story was originally published YaleE360 and is reproduced here as part of climate desk Cooperation.
in Odessa, Texas, Workers at a startup called SolarCycle unload trucks carrying photovoltaic panels recently 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 their glass from the laminated material that has helped generate electricity from sunlight for nearly a quarter century .
Next, the panels are ground, laminated, and subjected to a patented process that extracts valuable materials—mostly silver, copper, and crystalline silicon. Those components would be sold, such as low-value aluminum and glass, that could also end up in next-generation solar panels.
The process offers a glimpse of what could happen to the expected growth of retired solar panels that will flow from an industry that represents the fastest growing source of energy in America. Today, roughly 90 percent of panels in the US that have lost their efficiency due to age, or that are defective, end up in landfills because the cost of that alternative is a fraction of recycling them.
But recycling advocates in the US say that reusing valuable materials, such as silver and copper, will help foster a circular economy, in which waste and pollution are reduced by continually reusing materials. as of 2021 reports According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), recycling PV panels can also reduce the risk of toxic materials leaking into the environment from landfills; increasing the sustainability of a supply chain that is heavily dependent on imports from Southeast Asia; reducing raw material costs for solar and other types of manufacturers; and expand market opportunities for US recyclers.
Of course, reusing worn but still functional panels is a much 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 renewable modules.
The prospect of a future glut of expired panels is being fueled by a handful of solar recyclers to bridge a mismatch between current build-out of renewable energy capacity by utilities, cities, and private companies — millions of panels globally each year are installed – and a lack of facilities that can safely handle this material when it reaches its end of useful life in approximately 25 to 30 years.
Solar capacity across all regions in the US is expected to grow an average of 21 percent per year from 2023 to 2027, according to the latest quarter. reports From the Solar Energy Industries Association and consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. The expected growth will be helped by the Landmark Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which would provide a 30 percent tax credit for residential solar installations, among other supports for renewable energy.
According to NREL estimates, the area covered by solar panels that were installed in the US by 2021 and are scheduled to be retired by 2030 would cover approximately 3,000 American football fields. “It’s a good chunk of waste,” said Taylor Curtis, a legal and regulatory analyst at the lab. But the industry’s recycling rate, at less than 10 percent, lags far behind the industry’s upbeat forecasts of growth.
Jesse Simmons, a co-founder of SolarCycle, which employs about 30 people and began operations last December, said solid waste landfills typically charge $1 to $2 to accept a solar panel. However, this increases to about $5 if the material is considered hazardous waste. In contrast, his company charges $18 per panel. Customers are willing to pay that rate because they may be unable to obtain a landfill license to accept hazardous waste and assume legal liability for it, and because they want to reduce the environmental impact of their old panels. , said Simmons , a former Sierra Club executive .
SolarCycle provides its customers with an environmental analysis that shows the benefits of panel recycling. For example, recycling aluminum uses 95 percent less energy than making virgin aluminum, which incurs the costs of mining the raw material, bauxite, and then transporting and refining it.
The company estimates that recycling each panel can avoid 97 pounds of CO2 emissions; This figure rises to more than 1.5 tonnes of CO2 if the panels are reused. Under a proposed Securities and Exchange Commission rule, publicly held companies would be required to disclose climate-related risks that are likely to have a material impact on their business, including their greenhouse gas emissions.
The aluminum extracted from the solar panels at the SolarCycle plant is sold at a nearby metal yard. The glass is currently sold for only a few cents per panel for reuse in basic products like bottles, but Simmons hopes eventually he will have enough to sell at a higher price to a manufacturer of new solar panel sheets.
Crystalline silicon, used as the base material in solar cells, is also curable, he said. Although it must be refined for use in future panels, its use avoids the environmental impacts of mining and processing the new silicon.
SolarCycle is one of only five companies in the US listed by SEIA as capable of providing recycling services. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the industry is in its infancy and is still figuring out how to make money off recovering and then selling panel components. “Elements of this recycling process can be found in the United States, but it is not yet happening on a large scale,” the EPA said in a statement. Overview of industry.
In 2016, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) Forecast that by the early 2030s, the global amount of PV panels decommissioned will equal about 4 percent of the number of panels installed. The agency said that by 2050, the amount of solar panel waste will increase to at least 5 million metric tons annually. China, the world’s largest producer of solar power, is expected to retire a cumulative total of at least 13.5 million metric tons of panels by 2050, by far the largest amount among major solar-producing countries and nearly double the amount to be retired by the US. doubling by that time, according to the IRENA report.
Technically recoverable raw materials from PV panels globally could be worth a cumulative $450 million (in 2016 terms) by 2030, the report found, enough to produce about 60 million new panels, or 18 gigawatts of electricity. equal to the cost of raw materials required for generation capacity. By 2050, the report says, the realizable value could cumulatively exceed $15 billion.
For now, however, solar recyclers face significant economic, technical and regulatory challenges. Part of the problem, NREL’s Curtis says, is the lack of data on panel recycling rates, which hinders potential policy responses that would create more incentives for solar-farm operators to recycle rather than dump end-of-life panels. can provide.
Another problem is that the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure—an EPA-approved method used to determine whether a product or material contains hazardous substances that could leach into the environment—is known to be at fault. Is. As a result, some solar farm owners end up “over-managing” their panels as hazardous without a formal hazardous-waste determination, Curtis said. They pay more to handle hazardous waste or to dispose of it in a permitted landfill than to recycle it.
The International Energy Agency assessed whether solar panels containing lead, cadmium and selenium would affect human health if dumped as hazardous-waste or in municipal landfills and determined that the risk was low. Still, the agency said in a 2020 reportIts findings did not support landfilling: recycling, it said, would “further reduce” environmental concerns.
NREL is currently studying an alternative process to determine whether the panels are hazardous. “We need to find out because it’s definitely affecting the liability and the cost of making recycling more competitive,” Curtis said.
Despite these uncertainties, four states have recently enacted laws addressing PV module recycling. California, which has the most solar installations, allows panels to be dumped in landfills, but only after they’ve been verified as nonhazardous by a designated lab, which can cost more than $1,500. As of July 2022, there was only one recycling plant in California that accepted solar panels.
In Washington StateA law designed to provide an environmentally sound way to recycle PV panels is due to come into effect in July 2025; new Jersey Officials expect to release a report this spring on the management of PV waste; And North Carolina State environment authorities have been directed to study decommissioning of 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, since 2012, expired photovoltaic panels are treated as electronic waste under the EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, called WEEE, The directive requires all member states to adhere to minimum standards, but the actual rate of e-waste recycling varies from country to country, said Marius Mordl Bakke, senior analyst for solar supplier research at Rystad Energy. A research firm headquartered in Oslo, Norway. , Bakke said that despite this legislation, the EU’s PV recycling rate is no better than the US rate — about 10 percent — largely because of the difficulty in extracting valuable material from the panels. “It will automatically become profitable regardless of commodity prices.”