Image courtesy of SolarCycle

Recycling Solar Panels Is Essential To The Clean Energy Revolution

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Here at CleanTechnica, we are strong advocates for electric vehicles and renewable energy. We know that making fossil fuels the basis of society might have been good for humanity at one point in time, but they are now a threat to our ability to survive on Planet Earth. There are alternatives. The electric car promises to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from extracting, transporting, refining, and burning oil. Solar panels and wind turbines promise to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal, oil, or methane gas. Add them all together and a zero emissions environment becomes possible.

But here’s the thing. Solar panels and wind turbines have a useful life. If we throw them away when they can no longer do their jobs, how is that any different that spewing carbon and methane emissions into the atmosphere? The promise of these technologies will not be fully realized until they become an integral part of a circular economy in which old ones are recycled into new ones endlessly.

How will that happen? Given the dominant economic theory of capitalism, it won’t happen until recycling is less expensive than just throwing them into landfills. There are only three ways that could happen. First, the value of the materials recovered makes it profitable to do so. Second, government incentives tip the scales in favor of recycling. Third, government mandates prohibit sending them to landfills.

SolarCycle Recycles Solar Panels

Jesse Simons is co-founder of SolarCycle, a California solar panel recycler. He tells Yale 360 that solid waste landfills typically charge $1 to $2 to accept a solar panel. That rises to around $5 if the material is deemed hazardous waste. By contrast, SolarCycle charges $18 per panel. How on earth does it get any customers?

Simons, a former Sierra Club executive. says companies are willing to pay what SolarCycle charges because they may be unable to find a landfill that is licensed to accept hazardous waste and assume legal liability for it, and because they want to minimize the environmental impact of their old solar panels.

SolarCycle is one of only five companies in the US listed by the SEIA as capable of providing recycling services. The industry remains in its infancy and is still figuring out how to make money from recovering and then selling panel components. “Elements of this recycling process can be found in the United States, but it is not yet happening on a large scale,“ the EPA said in an overview of the industry.

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Recycling Solar Panels Will Be Big Business

In 2016, the International Renewable Energy Agency forecast that by the early 2030s, the global quantity of decommissioned PV panels will equal some 4% of the number of installed panels. By the 2050s, the volume of solar panel waste will rise to at least 5 million metric tons a year. China, the world’s biggest producer of solar energy, is expected to have retired a cumulative total of at least 13.5 million metric tons of panels by 2050 — the largest quantity among major solar-producing nations and nearly twice the volume retired in the US by that time.

A solar panel has lots of materials that can be recovered and used to manufacture new panels — silver, copper, and crystalline silicon being the most valuable. The aluminum used in the frame and the glass that protects the active elements inside can also be recovered, but have lesser value. The raw materials recovered from solar panels globally could be worth $450 million by 2030, the IRENA report found — equal to the cost of raw materials needed to produce 60 million new panels — or 18 gigawatts of electricity generation capacity. By 2050, the report said, recoverable value could cumulatively exceed $15 billion.

But what else is inside a solar panel? Lead, cadmium, and selenium, among other things we don’t want in our groundwater, as they breakdown in landfills over years and decades. In 2020, the International Energy Association determined the risk of pollution when a solar panel is consigned to a a landfill is low, but its findings did not constitute an endorsement of using landfills. It said affirmatively that recycling would “further mitigate” environmental concerns.

The Case For Recycling

SolarCycle provides potential clients with an environmental analysis that highlights the environmental  benefits of solar panel recycling. For example, recycling aluminum uses 95% less energy than making virgin aluminum, which bears the costs of mining bauxite and then transporting and refining it.

The company estimates that recycling each panel avoids the emissions of 97 pounds of carbon dioxide. That rises to more than 1.5 tons of CO2 if a panel is reused. Under a proposed Securities and Exchange Commission rule, publicly held companies will be required to disclose climate related risks that are likely to have a material impact on their business, including their greenhouse gas emissions.

Gosh, what might happen if there was an economic benefit associated with keeping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere? Don’t be silly. That would severely damage the profitability of fossil fuel companies, and we couldn’t have that, now could we? Profits must always take priority over sustainability. People learn that the very first week of B School. Conservatives are always bleating about a “level playing field” but they know if they really had a level playing field that included the cost of the damage they do to the environment, fossil fuels would be hopelessly uncompetitive with renewables.

Solar Panels & The Circular Economy

Recycling is vital to creating a circular economy. Creating a circular economy is essential to a sustainable planet. We simply cannot continue using our planet as a garbage dump. You might think that would be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer, but it is not. Profits make it impossible for us to see what is right under our noses.

I have a colleague who dislikes government subsidies. I tell him we wouldn’t need government subsidies if the dominant economic system did not ignore the costs of the waste products created by burning fossil fuels. Recycling solar panels, wind turbines, and electric car batteries is the right thing to do. Making fossil fuel companies pay for their sins is the right thing to do also.

Let’s stop the madness of ignoring the absurd economic advantages fossil fuels enjoy. Once we do, recycling will be the obvious economic choice and the world will be able to breathe a lot easier.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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