Solar power is the most efficient, renewable, and cost-effective source of electricity available today. The industry has consistently and rapidly grown over the past decade, and solar adoption is projected to accelerate over the next 10 years, increasing from 150 GWp installed in 2021, to 650 GWp installed per year in 2030.
Solar also plays a critical role in America’s domestic strategy to build out a resilient, sustainable energy infrastructure. Supported by incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act, further investments in domestic manufacturing will help to increase solar acceleration and create good jobs nationwide.
While these incentives are fueling newly-built solar facilities, a need exists to solve looming problems presented by aging plants and the lack of end-of-life services. For solar to truly scale to its full potential in the U.S., the industry needs a vibrant secondary market for used panels and recycled materials, and a domestic renewable supply chain. There are responsible solutions to solar panel recycling and material reuse on the market today that are both ecological and economical, but they need more investment, innovation, and industry buy-in to scale.
As three executives working in the U.S. solar industry, we shared the stage at a Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) webinar earlier this year to discuss how the solar industry can move a circular economy forward rapidly, so that we create a robust recycling infrastructure that creates value and ensures sustainability in the energy sector for the long-term. Our discussion focused on three critical areas:
- How to advance recycling technology to create supply chain value,
- How to work together as an industry to shift practices towards circularity, and
- How to ensure community and land stewardship from the start through long-term planning.
Advance Recycling Technology to Create Supply Chain Value
Building on existing advanced recycling technology to create supply chain value requires adequate investment and industry buy-in. Solar panels are decommissioned for a host of reasons, whether because of normal wear and tear, operational breakage, extreme weather events, or reaching end-of-life.
According to the market research firm Rystad Energy, solar PV waste that ends up in a landfill could grow to 27 million tons annually by 2040 if, as an industry, we fail to build out recycling infrastructure. While e-waste recycling has been around since the mid-1970s, e-waste recyclers do not have dedicated lines for solar panels. They largely remove the aluminum and the junction box, and then shred the rest of the panel, which includes glass and valuable metals. Since typically solar panel e-waste recyclers are recycling only aluminum, the bulk of the valuable materials are ending up in a landfill rather than fueling the solar supply chain.
The good news is that advanced recycling technology, including that from SOLARCYCLE, can extract 95% of the material value from modules and return the raw materials, such as silver, copper, and aluminum, back into the supply chain to make new solar panels or other goods. It’s a process already in practice. Over the next few years, additional advances in technology and achieving better economies of scale will bring the cost of advanced recycling down to better compete with the cheap but unsustainable costs of landfilling panels.
The Department of Energy’s National Renewable Laboratory (NREL) found that with modest government support, recycled materials can meet 25-30% of domestic solar manufacturing needs in the U.S. by 2040. With advances in remanufacturing practices, the most value in solar panel recycling will come from rendering out the raw materials and selling it back into the solar supply chain. We can do that with additional innovation, industry commitment, and adequate investment.
Work Together as an Industry to Shift Practices Toward Circularity
DEPCOM has shared that shifting the industry’s mindset to a long-term perspective is key to making solar even more sustainable. Solar panels should be designed from the start with backward compatibility, planning for the possibility that replacement panels may not be compatible with the existing system.
Engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) and operations and maintenance (O&M) services include planning for restoration and major maintenance overhauls to ensure sustainable asset management. By extending the lifetime of solar panels with well-crafted commissioning plans, solar recyclers such as DEPCOM support responsible end-of-life strategies to safeguard revenues.
Deploying repowering practices as a first approach mitigates risk, lowers operational costs, and improves energy optimization, allowing asset owners to address full lifecycle costs.
In addition to the inherent aging of equipment, end-of-life issues also can crop up in relation to warranty returns, scrap materials from manufacturing activities, damage from weather events, and operational issues.
Additionally, developing standard end-of-life operating procedures is a critical part of creating a circular solar economy. It can lower overall project risks, improving the financial prospects over the asset’s life.
Designating a project end-of-life principal at the outset of a project could ensure that sustainability and proper recycling practices are taken into consideration from a project’s beginning moment.
Creating a circular economy also requires identifying appropriate recyclers who are following regulations and compliance procedures and deploying trustworthy practices. To that end, SEIA has created a National PV Recycling Program to develop a network of vetted recyclers capable of reusing, reselling, and refurbishing solar materials.
Ensure Community Stewardship From the Start in Long-Term Planning
Solar facilities are embedded in communities across the country, and we discussed that communities care deeply about what happens to solar panels when they reach their end-of-life.
At the same time, the solar industry needs to maintain a social license to operate within these communities across the U.S. by being good stewards of the land that our panels reside on. Everyone wins when the solar industry can demonstrate its capabilities as a good long-term community partner with clear and well-communicated sustainability plans.
For example, Silicon Ranch has witnessed firsthand how advancing its practices in regenerative land management and dual use, combining agriculture and solar panels on one piece of land, has significantly supported and strengthened community relations. As the long-term owner of every project in its portfolio, Silicon Ranch understands that each site on which it locates a solar facility is unique and that each project must fit into the surrounding ecosystem and within the local community context. It’s an important consideration for every group working in the solar power industry.
Silicon Ranch’s Regenerative Energy platform is an example of a holistic approach to project design, construction, and operations—the company marries solar energy generation with regenerative land management practices that promote long-term, deep-rooted vegetation, and plant growth cycles.
This framework is not only a win-win for better facilities, but it also provides new opportunities for local workforces and economies, including access to land for existing and aspiring farmers, as well as more work opportunities for veterinarians, seed and equipment suppliers, and other local businesses.
Silicon Ranch knows Regenerative Energy is working not only because the company can see its positive impacts, but also because it third-party monitors, quantifies, and verifies ecological outcomes of the platform. Such programs help meet the goal of not just maintaining the land under and around solar panels, but helping restore it and enhance it.
The solar industry needs a similar shift in long-term, end-of-life planning practices so that communities know about our plans from the beginning when they are approved for construction. End-of-life decommissioning plans should require expert certification. Even if the original developer is not in business as modules age out, communities need reassurance that they will be recycled.
For example, the industry could create a seal of approval affirming that a facility is committed to recycling, which could streamline a community’s acceptance at the project’s genesis. SEIA is uniquely positioned to create such a stamp of approval and vet recycling companies.
Solar is making great strides by both becoming a dominant energy source and building a sustainable energy system for America. Recycling and reusing materials from old solar panels to make new panels must become the industry norm. While our groups’ conversation with SEIA was just the start, our companies believe that building a domestic circular economy for solar is the next critical frontier to ensure that solar is even more sustainable.
—Suvi Sharma is co-founder and CEO of SOLARCYCLE, a tech-driven recycling company focused on producing sustainable and domestic materials at scale for the solar industry. John Schroeder is EVP of Distributed Energy at DEPCOM Power, an energy solutions partner for the utility solar and broader energy industries with capabilities spanning Project Development Support, EPC, Energy Storage, Repowering and O&M services. Reagan Farr is the co-founder and CEO of Silicon Ranch, a fully integrated provider of customized renewable energy, carbon, and battery storage solutions, and one of the largest independent power producers in the country.