Back in 2018, one industry source said it was premature to focus on solar panel recycling in the United States, but almost five years later, significant steps are being taken to establish protocols to bring more sustainability to the solar industry. From solar panel recycling to waste cleanup on project sites to better packaging for shipments, the solar industry is greening-up its image.
Members of SEIA’s PV Recycling Working Group began making recycling checklists and finding preferred partners in 2019, and a grassroots website (SolarRecycle.org) has collected information on reuse, resale and recycle outlets that accept solar materials. But the biggest step forward for the solar recycling space came with the 2022 founding of SolarCycle, a PV-technology-based recycler that opened a processing facility in Odessa, Texas, that recovers 95% of a solar panel’s value. Both national residential installer Sunrun and utility-scale developer Silicon Ranch have inked partnerships with SolarCycle to process end-of-life modules.
“As Sunrun deploys PV systems at the scale needed to confront the climate crisis, we’ve embraced the responsibility and opportunity of managing the full lifecycle of our hardware,” said Mary Powell, CEO of Sunrun, in a statement. “We are committed to sustainable end-of-life processes and excited to partner with an innovative company that shares our vision and is dedicated to creating a circular supply chain for the solar industry.”
In addition to end-of-life forward-thinking, some innovators are working on ways to prevent premature solar panel scrapping due to delivery damage. PVpallet began testing its collapsible, plastic pallet in late 2021 and found a 100% success rate with Greentech Renewables delivering panels to Palmetto Solar. Where previously Greentech was reporting 10 broken modules each month, PVpallet’s vertically stacked setup prevented forklift damage and distributed weight during transit, leading to no broken panels. More distributors, including BayWa r.e., have signed on to use PVpallets in warehouses and deliveries.
Those reusable pallets also cut down on wooden pallet waste at project sites, a focus for Green Clean Solar. Founded by industry veteran Emilie O’Leary in 2022, the company supports waste diversion by taking cardboard, shrink wrap and more refuse associated with solar product delivery out of landfills and into recycling centers. In addition to trash pickup, Green Clean Solar helps with solar panel decommissioning and complete solar site cleanup.
“When I owned a commercial installation company, I was visiting utility-scale sites and noticed how much waste was accumulating from building these types of projects,” O’Leary said. “It was very counterintuitive building these massive energy efficiency systems to help the world but then turning around and filling the Earth with tons of waste. It motivated me to start Green Clean Solar. I want to revolutionize the way we build solar projects.”
O’Leary said her team has been overwhelmed by calls during Green Clean Solar’s first year of business, with many asking for ways to recycle solar panels. Working as one national EPC’s dedicated recycler, Green Clean Solar was able to recycle 8,110 solar panels in 2022, and O’Leary said more clients are signing on every day.
“No one was taking recycling seriously, because no one was requiring companies to take this on or even consider this as part of their scope of work. I have collaborated with the waste industry and informed them we need recycling partners all over the country to help manage and find solutions to this ever-growing problem,” she said. “When people are aware and know they do have options now, they are willing to partner and recycle as much as possible.”
This story is part of SPW’s 2023 Trends in Solar. Read all of this year’s trends here.
First Solar has had and improved, their cradle to cradle recycling program since 2003. First Solar has announced every manufacturing line of First Solar panels will be powered by solar PV by 2028. First Solar has announced they will have about 500MW of First Solar Panel recycling ready sometime in 2023. Have not heard mention of First Solar’s intent on recycling their panels using solar PV to drive the process. In the utility sector, First Solar has their framless panel products that can be ground and mined for making new panels. Imagine a company that manufactures solar PV products using these same products to power the manufacturing line. Imagine the same technology powering the recycling tranche of the operations and now imagine the overall carbon footprint to manufacture and recycle solar PV panels. How low can one go per watt in panel pricing?