With the Auxin tariff threat on pause, the U.S. solar industry is set to return to its usual torrid pace of installing millions of panels each year. This is good news for those who want to see the Biden administration meet its target of transitioning the nation’s electrical grid to 100 percent renewable power by 2035.
But there is one foreseeable downside: All of those solar panels have finite 25– to 30-year life spans and are difficult and expensive to recycle. Currently, 90 to 95 percent of decommissioned solar panels in the U.S. are sent to landfills when they reach the end of their useful life.
The enormity of the numbers is difficult to fathom, but if the current trajectory holds, the solar module waste stream in the U.S. alone could amount to a cumulative 1 million metric tons by 2030 and 10 million metric tons by 2050, according to a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. This means that there are hundreds of millions, soon to be billions, of panels that must be responsibly dealt with if the solar industry can ever hope to be considered “green.”
So far, few entrepreneurs and investors have stepped up to confront the looming wave of renewable energy waste.
But Solarcycle, a startup that launched earlier this year, says it has found a way to tackle the problem. The solar panel recycling company claims that its technology allows it to extract 95 percent of the high-value metals contained in solar photovoltaic panels such as silver, silicon, copper and aluminum and to either repurpose them or return them to the supply chain.
In early June, the startup announced it had raised $6.6 million in venture funding from investors including SolarCity founders Peter and Lyndon Rive, Sunpower co-founder Tom Dinwoodie, Urban Innovation Fund and Closed Loop Partners.
Solarcycle CEO Suvi Sharma (the former CEO of Solaria) says the new funding will allow the company to scale its recycling operations in North America and start “handling the millions of solar systems that will be retiring in the coming years.” Leading residential solar installer and financier Sunrun is Solarcycle’s first announced customer.
Recycling at scale
When most solar modules reach the end of their useful life in the U.S., their aluminum frames (worth a few dollars) are removed, and the remainder of the module is sent to a landfill. Their high-value materials, such as silicon, silver and copper, for the most part are not being recycled in the U.S. today. Solar glass is recoverable and represents the bulk of the weight of the panel, but it is of low value. The polymer encapsulants and backsheet are difficult to recycle and have virtually zero value.
Jesse Simons, Solarcycle’s co-founder and CCO, notes, “Recycling can be expensive, cumbersome and challenging — companies are saying they can’t even find a recycling site to send these used panels.”
“There’s no real industrial-scale recycling process for solar. We came to the conclusion that we needed to develop one,” Sharma told Canary Media. “What inspired our investors is that we have a vision for a centralized gigafactory to process millions of panels. Nobody else is operating at that scale.”
The CEO said that technology and scale had lowered the cost of producing solar panels, and the cost of recycling those same panels will also be driven down by technology and scale.
Sharma said that he scoured the world’s labs and schools, surveying the existing recycling technologies. In the process, he chose to recruit a third co-founder, Pablo Dias, as CTO. Dias had been developing an electrostatic separation process, which separates small particles by mass in a low-energy charged field, to recycle solar panels at the University of New South Wales in Australia, a school recognized for its solar science research.
A 2018 paper by Dias and other researchers in the Journal of Sustainable Metallurgy considers the possibility of applying the electrostatic process used in some e-waste recovery efforts to the metallics in solar panel waste. Solarcycle uses a series of electrically charged rollers that can separate the key materials based on weight and electrical properties. This mostly mechanical process is less energy-intensive than thermal methods and uses less toxic substances than chemical processes.
One U.S. company, panel manufacturer First Solar, has also developed solar module recycling and take-back capabilities — but its efforts are currently limited to processing its own proprietary thin-film photovoltaic technology.
Making money in recycling?
Solarcycle’s revenue stream will consist of the fee that developers; engineering, procurement and construction providers; and customers like Sunrun will pay Solarcycle for the service of removing and handling old or damaged panels. Another revenue stream will come from selling the recovered materials, including silver, copper and aluminum.
Solarcycle’s longer-term vision is to have a recycling gigafactory where it can recycle very large volumes of modules powered by a nearby solar plant operating repurposed solar panels. This would be more of a logistical challenge than a technological challenge, Sharma said — the company knows how to do the recycling, but establishing the systems to efficiently bring in mass amounts of used solar panels will require some hard work.
But despite its ambitious business plan, Solarcycle is still confronted with the harsh economics of high recycling costs and low landfill costs.
“We’ve done some cost modeling of PV recycling systems, and indeed, they don’t return value greater than the cost,” said Garvin Heath, a senior environmental scientist at NREL’s Strategic Energy Analysis Center. It costs $20–$30 to recycle a panel and just $1–$2 to send it to a landfill, he added.
Landfills are cheap but not environmentally friendly, and they are essentially Solarcycle’s competition.
The trick to making recycling a cost-effective proposition lies not only in reducing the costs and increasing the value of recycling but also in increasing the costs of discarding end-of-life solar panels in landfills — or outlawing it altogether, Heath said.
No policy, no recycling
The United States lags far behind Europe in its recycling programs and policy. NREL’s Heath notes, “The fundamental barrier right now, especially in the U.S., is that without a government mandate to recycle, there are no economies of scale yet, and costs are high.”
The European Union holds PV module installers accountable for their e-waste and requires solar producers to recycle and pay an upfront recycling fee through an organization called PV Cycle. It falls under the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, an extended producer program that mandates that manufacturers of electronic equipment, including solar panels, contribute to a fund that’s used to subsidize disposal.
By contrast, there is a vacuum when it comes to U.S. federal leadership on solar recycling and treatment of end-of-life PV modules. For now, the future of solar panel recycling is in the hands of the states, and they’re moving slowly, if at all. In the EU, solar customers, whether a business or homeowners, can dispose of their solar panels at end of life for little to no cost. In the U.S., consumers foot that bill.
Legislation addressing PV panel waste could be modeled on past e-waste or toxics legislation in the U.S., forming a recycling fund, similar to PV Cycle, to impose an upfront surcharge on a per-panel basis.
There are other innovative ways to handle recycling, such as factoring end-of-life processes and costs into power-purchase agreements and operations and maintenance negotiations. Big energy purchasers and investors concerned about environmental, social and corporate governance want to see sustainability across the supply chain, and regulators might be able to create market pricing mechanisms that enable high-value recycling.
Sam Vanderhoof, a solar industry veteran previously with Recycle PV Solar, noted recently on LinkedIn, “The biggest issue is the solar industry has not been willing or able to support policies, infrastructure and financial aid to kickstart a national solar [recycling] program.”
Peter Rive, co-founder and CTO of SolarCity, had this to say about the Solarcycle CEO: “I’ve known Suvi for a long time. I think he’s a tenacious leader — and this problem will require tenacity.”
Solarcycle will encounter waves of 25-year-old panels reaching end of life in the 2030s. But there’s another looming stream of used solar panels: those from systems that have been upgraded and repowered. Although a utility power-purchase agreement could extend for 25 years, panels might be replaced at least once over the project lifetime. Even residential systems are being repowered as panel power production improves.
“The next big challenge for those of us who want to see a world powered by solar and wind and storage is that we need to avoid the waste and recycle the materials for the next generation of clean energy,” Simons said. “Our funders helped usher in the age of cheap solar, and now they’re helping make recycling cheaper than landfill in the same way they made solar cheaper than gas and coal.”
Solarcycle’s funding news could be a small sign that the energy industry is starting to come to grips with the mountains of waste it will produce and the necessity of creating a circular economy for its infrastructure and manufacturing.