In Odessa, Texas, employees at a startup called SolarCycle unload trucks carrying end-of-life photovoltaic panels freshly picked from business solar farms across the USA. They separate the panels from the aluminum frames and electrical boxes, then feed them into machines that detach their glass from the laminated materials which have helped generate electricity from sunlight for a few quarter of a century.
Next, the panels are ground, shredded, and subjected to a patented process that extracts the useful materials — mostly silver, copper, and crystalline silicon. Those components will probably be sold, as will the lower-value aluminum and glass, which can even find yourself in the subsequent generation of solar panels.
This process offers a glimpse of what could occur to an expected surge of retired solar panels that can stream from an industry that represents the fastest-growing source of energy within the U.S. Today, roughly 90 percent of panels within the U.S. which have lost their efficiency attributable to age, or which are defective, find yourself in landfills because that option costs a fraction of recycling them.
But recycling advocates within the U.S. say increased reuse of useful materials, like silver and copper, would help boost the circular economy, by which waste and pollution are reduced by always reusing materials. In line with a 2021 report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), recycling PV panels could also cut the danger of landfills leaking toxins into the environment; increase the steadiness of a supply chain that is basically depending on imports from Southeast Asia; lower the price of raw materials to solar and other kinds of manufacturers; and expand market opportunities for U.S. recyclers.
U.S. solar panels attributable to retire by 2030 would cover about 3,000 American football fields.
After all, reusing degraded but still-functional panels is a fair higher option. Tens of millions of those panels now find yourself in developing nations, while others are reused closer to home. For instance, SolarCycle is constructing an influence plant for its Texas factory that can use refurbished modules.
The prospect of a future glut of expired panels is prompting efforts by a handful of solar recyclers to handle a mismatch between the present buildup of renewable energy capability by utilities, cities, and personal firms — tens of millions of panels are installed globally every 12 months — and a shortage of facilities that may handle this material safely when it reaches the tip of its useful life, in about 25 to 30 years.
Solar capability across all segments within the U.S. is predicted to rise by a median of 21 percent a 12 months from 2023 to 2027, in keeping with the newest quarterly report from the Solar Energy Industries Association and the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. The expected increase will probably be helped by the landmark Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 which, amongst other supports for renewable energy, will provide a 30 percent tax credit for residential solar installations.
The realm covered by solar panels that were installed within the U.S. as of 2021 and are attributable to retire by 2030 would cover about 3,000 American football fields, in keeping with an NREL estimate. “It’s an excellent little bit of waste,” said Taylor Curtis, a legal and regulatory analyst on the lab. However the industry’s recycling rate, at lower than 10 percent, lags far behind the upbeat forecasts for the industry’s growth.
Jesse Simons, a co-founder of SolarCycle, which employs about 30 people and started operations last December, said solid waste landfills typically charge $1 to $2 to simply accept a solar panel, rising to around $5 if the fabric is deemed hazardous waste. Against this, his company charges $18 per panel. Clients are willing to pay that rate because they might be unable to seek out a landfill licensed to simply accept hazardous waste and assume legal liability for it, and since they need to attenuate the environmental impact of their old panels, said Simons, a former Sierra Club executive.
SolarCycle provides its clients with an environmental evaluation that shows the advantages of panel recycling. For instance, recycling aluminum uses 95 percent less energy than making virgin aluminum, which bears the prices of mining the raw material, bauxite, after which transporting and refining it.
The corporate estimates that recycling each panel avoids the emissions of 97 kilos of CO2; the figure rises to greater than 1.5 tons of CO2 if a panel is reused. Under a proposed Securities and Exchange Commission rule, publicly held firms will probably be required to reveal climate-related risks which are prone to have a fabric impact on their business, including their greenhouse gas emissions.
Stripped from solar panels on the SolarCycle plant, aluminum is sold at a close-by metal yard. Glass is currently sold for just a number of cents per panel for reuse in basic products like bottles, but Simons hopes he’ll eventually have enough of it to sell for the next price to a manufacturer of recent solar panel sheets.
By 2050, the worth of raw materials recoverable from solar panels could exceed $15 billion.
Crystalline silicon, used as a base material in solar cells, can be price recovering, he said. Even though it should be refined to be used in future panels, its use avoids the environmental impacts of mining and processing latest silicon.
SolarCycle is one in all only five firms within the U.S. listed by the SEIA as able to providing recycling services. The industry stays in its infancy and continues to be determining how one can earn money from recovering after which selling panel components, in keeping with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Elements of this recycling process will be present in the USA, nevertheless it shouldn’t be yet happening on a big scale,“ the EPA said in an overview of the industry.
In 2016, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) forecast that by the early 2030s, the worldwide quantity of decommissioned PV panels will equal some 4 percent of the variety of installed panels. By the 2050s, the amount of solar panel waste will rise to no less than 5 million metric tons a 12 months, the agency said. China, the world’s biggest producer of solar energy, is predicted to have retired a cumulative total of no less than 13.5 million metric tons of panels by 2050, by far the most important quantity amongst major solar-producing nations and nearly twice the amount the U.S. will retire by that point, in keeping with the IRENA report.
The raw materials technically recoverable from PV panels globally could cumulatively be price $450 million (in 2016 terms) by 2030, the report found, about equal to the price of raw materials needed to supply some 60 million latest panels, or 18 gigawatts of power-generation capability. By 2050, the report said, recoverable value could cumulatively exceed $15 billion.
For now, though, solar recyclers face significant economic, technological, and regulatory challenges. A part of the issue, says NREL’s Curtis, is a scarcity of knowledge on panel recycling rates, which hinders potential policy responses that may provide more incentives for solar-farm operators to recycle end-of-life panels quite than dump them.
One other problem is that the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure — an EPA-approved method used to find out whether a product or material accommodates hazardous elements that might leach into the environment — is thought to be faulty. Consequently, some solar farm owners find yourself “over-managing” their panels as hazardous without making a proper hazardous-waste determination, Curtis said. They find yourself paying more to eliminate them in landfills permitted to handle hazardous waste or to recycle them.
The International Energy Agency assessed whether solar panels that contain lead, cadmium, and selenium would impact human health if dumped in either hazardous-waste or municipal landfills and determined the danger was low. Still, the agency said in a 2020 report, its findings didn’t constitute an endorsement of landfilling: Recycling, it stated, would “further mitigate” environmental concerns.
As of July 2022, California had just one recycling plant that accepted solar panels.
NREL is currently studying an alternate process for determining whether or not panels are hazardous. “We’d like to figure that out since it is certainly impacting the liability and the price to make recycling more competitive,” Curtis said.
Despite these uncertainties, 4 states recently enacted laws addressing PV module recycling. California, which has probably the most solar installations, allows panels to be dumped in landfills, but only after they’ve been verified as non-hazardous by a chosen laboratory, which may cost upwards of $1,500. As of July 2022, California had just one recycling plant that accepted solar panels.
In Washington State, a law designed to supply an environmentally sound method to recycle PV panels is attributable to be implemented in July of 2025; Latest Jersey officials expect to issue a report on managing PV waste this spring; and North Carolina has directed state environmental officials to check the decommissioning of utility scale solar projects. (North Carolina currently requires solar panels to be disposed of as hazardous waste in the event that they contain heavy metals like silver or — within the case of older panels — hexavalent chromium, lead, cadmium, and arsenic.)
Within the European Union, end-of-life photovoltaic panels have, since 2012, been treated as electronic waste under the EU’s waste electrical and electronic equipment directive, generally known as WEEE. The directive requires all member states to comply with minimum standards, however the actual rate of e-waste recycling varies from nation to nation, said Marius Mordal Bakke, senior analyst for solar supplier research at Rystad Energy, a research firm headquartered in Oslo, Norway. Despite this law, the EU’s PV recycling rate is not any higher than the U.S. rate — around 10 percent — largely due to the problem of extracting useful materials from panels, Bakke said.
But he predicted that recycling will grow to be more prevalent when the variety of end-of-life panels rises to the purpose where it presents a business opportunity, providing recyclers with useful materials they’ll sell. Governments may also help speed that transition, he added, by banning the disposal of PV panels in landfills and providing incentives resembling tax breaks to anyone who uses solar panels.
“In some unspecified time in the future in the longer term, you’re going to see enough panels being decommissioned that you just type of have to start out recycling,” Bakke said. “It’s going to grow to be profitable by itself no matter commodity prices.”