Dreamstime Images
668beeee0761355067fdb8d8 Dreamstime L 306345454

Creating a Circular Economy for Old Solar Panels

July 8, 2024
Businesses and residences in the U.S. continue to add solar power, but now needs a sustainable way to dispose of the panels that no longer work or that have reached end of life.

Download this article in PDF format. 

As the nation’s solar industry continues to install a record-breaking volume of equipment each new quarter, a new problem is mounting: how to responsibly dispose of all the solar panels that are broken, have reached end of life or are simply unusable. 

Renewal energy of any kind is a good thing, of course, but it also appears to be presenting some unintended negative consequences. “Solar is becoming the dominant form of power generation,” SOLARCYCLE’s CEO Suvi Sharma told CNBC, citing an EIA report stating that 54% of new utility-scale domestic electric-generating capacity in 2024 will come from solar.

“But with that comes a new set of challenges and opportunities,” Sharma continued “We have done a phenomenal job making solar efficient and cost-effective, but really have not done anything yet on making it circular and dealing with the end-of-life panels.”

A Booming Solar Market

Nationally, solar contractors installed 11.8 gigawatts-direct current (GWdc) of capacity during the first quarter of 2024, according to U.S. Solar Market Insight Q2 2024, a Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) report. SEIA estimates that total U.S. solar module manufacturing capacity now exceeds 26 gigawatts annually.

According to SEIA, the utility-scale segment had a “remarkable quarter,” putting 9.8 GWdc of projects in the ground—more than the annual total for this segment as recently as 2019. Overall, photovoltaic (PV) solar accounted for 75% of all new electricity-generating capacity additions in the first quarter of 2024, remaining the dominant form of new generating capacity in the US.

This presents a double-edged sword for the solar industry, which now has to come up with a way to safely and responsibly dispose of (or else reuse) panels that last anywhere from 20-30 years (certain types have a lifespan of about 40 years). After that time, the panels’ power production and efficiency will decline, making them less effective at converting the sun’s energy into power for a home or business. Most panels have a “solar panel degradation rate” of roughly 0.5% annually. 

Solutions Wanted

Both wind and solar energy are important players in the nation’s power grid and “key to the nation’s growing need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, lower carbon emissions and mitigate climate change,” CNBC points out. “But at the same time, these burgeoning renewable energy industries will soon generate tons of waste as millions of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, wind turbines and lithium-ion EV batteries reach the end of their respective lifecycles.”

So what’s being done to curb the problem? According to CNBC, several startups are working to create a sustainable circular economy focused on recovering, recycling and reusing these core components of climate tech innovation. 

For example, SOLARCYCLE has built a Texas recycling facility that extracts 95% of the materials from end-of-life solar panels. The company then sells recovered silver and copper on commodity markets and glass, silicon and aluminum to panel manufacturers and solar farm operators.

As the largest solar panel manufacturer in the U.S., First Solar is another company making progress in this area. The company has an in-house recycling program that extracts metals and glass from retired panels and manufacturing scrap, effectively creating a “closed-loop semiconductor recovery” for use in new modules. 

More to Come

With all eyes on companies’ sustainability initiatives right now, expect to see more entities getting involved with panel recovery, recycling and reuse in the near future. “It’s important to make sure we keep in mind the context of these emerging technologies and understand their full lifecycle,” NREL’s Garvin Heath told CNBC. “The circular economy provides a lot of opportunities to these industries to be as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible at a relatively early phase of their growth.”

About the Author

Bridget McCrea | Contributing Writer | Supply Chain Connect

Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers business and technology for various publications.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Supply Chain Connect, create an account today!