Nearly 20 years after the birth of the solar investment tax credit (ITC), many early solar adopters are seeking a refresh of their old arrays in favor of new technology. Even if the panels are still producing, new module, inverter and battery technology that far surpasses their current array’s performance can be inspiration enough to decommission and reinstall a system.
Utah-based Sunworks (No. 80 on the 2023 Top Solar Contractors List) is a commercial installer that expanded to residential work with an acquisition of Solcius in 2021. The company saw an uptick in decommissioning projects around 2021 and pieced together a plan to recycle almost 300 old panels so they didn’t end up in a landfill. But Sunworks realized it needed a more comprehensive partnership to streamline recycling on future projects.
“There is going to be a transition as businesses and homeowners decide to upgrade to new panels. We wanted to be positioned correctly to be able to help our customers and to do the environmentally responsible thing, to take care of them the right way,” said Sarah Willis, SVP of marketing and communications at Sunworks.
Sunworks’ environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) advisory committee, consisting of over a dozen employees, got to work researching the best recycling providers to hire. In the end, the company inked a long-term national partnership with Massachusetts-based electronic recycling company ZEEP in August 2022, which has since sold its solar panel recycling business to Commercial Solar Panel Recycling (CSPR). Sunworks chose ZEEP because of the company’s ability to recycle every element of a solar module.
“What we really liked about their program is that the methods that they use to recycle get you to a point where nothing goes to the landfill, which was pretty incredible,” Willis said.
ZEEP also recycles some other solar project components too, like inverters and batteries. The company then provides written documentation detailing where the products were disposed for customer ESG reporting purposes.
Sunworks passes the cost of recycling on to the customer during decommissions, but Willis said that extra fee is not a deterrent.
“Especially in a commercial scenario, that’s going to be part of their expectations,” she said. “They have their own requirements to be compliant to, and recycling is naturally a part of a component of that.”
Willis has noticed the topic of ESG and recycling coming up more and more in conversations with prospective clients.
“Things like recycling are definitely part of the consideration process. Companies want to make sure that their supply chain is acting responsibly as it relates to the environment,” she said.
As more companies look to decommission their old solar systems in favor of fresh installs, Willis expects recycling to become a necessary service to win a bid.
“Right now we’re talking about it and it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s a differentiator.’ As we move forward, having an established recycling program, I think that’s going to be just an expectation that any client is going to have of their provider,” she said.
This story was featured exclusively in our 2023 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.