The solar industry has experienced record growth every year for a decade and, in the process, has proven itself to be a clean and reliable energy source for our planet.  The largest corporations in the world continue to set aggressive sustainability targets and reduce their carbon footprint.  On Earth Day and every day, we all must remain steadfast in our mission to reverse the climate crisis and meet new challenges with scientific support, technological advancement, and industry alignment.

With the solar industry’s rapid growth, a new obstacle has emerged: the waste stream we are creating. Over 910 GW of solar have been installed globally, with 121.4 GW in the United States alone.  The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) calculates that there will be 78 million tonnes of waste by 2050 and that, by 2035, discarded modules will outweigh newly sold modules by 2.56 times (Source: The Dark Side of Solar Power).

Many early solar adopters anticipated their equipment would have a useful life of 25-30 years, but several factors are accelerating solar decommissioning. Rapid technological advancements within our industry are driving solar asset owners to explore options for increased energy production and safer operations.  These owners may upgrade their equipment to higher efficiency modules and more reliable inverters while maintaining their existing interconnection agreements. Since this can supercharge project timelines and economics, Decom Solar is seeing many companies update system equipment within the first 8-12 years of operation.  With technology becoming more efficient and safe every year, the amount of material that will need to be removed will increase exponentially, resulting in faster than anticipated waste production.

On the surface, replacing older technology to increase solar production is positive; the more clean energy produced, the less reliance we have on fossil fuels.  While this is true, it presents unique technological and ethical barriers.  Older modules that are removed from operation, but not truly at their end-of-life, should be redeployed to maximize the 30 years of clean energy they were built to produce, but older modules are likely not up to current UL requirements and therefore cannot be installed with available solar racking.  This limits module redeployment options to underdeveloped countries, off-grid installations, or, ground mount applications only.   Many non-profits are using the solar waste stream to do the incredible; our NPO partners provide electricity to communities without power, provide generation during catastrophic events, or power clean water pumps for those without access. However, the solar industry at large must ensure that solar material is not temporarily redeployed only to be dumped in landfills or oceans years from now.

These are not new problems. All emerging industries (including the computer and auto industries) faced similar waste disposal challenges and were able to drive advancements and revenue streams from their waste. Our industry differentiates itself from others in our mission to stop climate crisis and mitigate our reliance on fossil fuels. As environmental stewards, we all must push manufacturers, developers, corporations, installers, and industry trade groups to focus on reduction, reuse, and recycling of our waste stream.  We must challenge our industry to be flexible, creative, and unwavering in our mission, as we always have, to save our planet for future generations.

For the third year in a row, solar PV installations accounted for the largest share of new electricity generation in the U.S., adding an additional 23.6 GW of capacity to reach over 121GW of installed capacity in the country (SEIA 2022).  As this number continues to grow, there is an increasing number of solar material that is starting to reach its end-of-life (EOL).  A deliberate and regulated plan to ensure that this material is repurposed and recycled properly is necessary to encourage a circular economy and guarantee that the sustainability strides of our industry are not erased through the destructive scraping of materials.

Fortunately, regulatory bodies are beginning to pay attention to this incoming wave of aging PV systems.  On March 18 of this year, the U.S. Department of Energy released its action plan to enable responsible handling of EOL photovoltaic materials.  Through their Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO), the DOE plans to support hardware research to reduce the cost of and promote module recycling, create a database of aging systems, reach out to stakeholders, and more.  Additionally, decommissioning policies and guidelines have already been growing at the state and local AHJ level.  Fifteen U.S. states have enforced statewide solar decommissioning policies enforcing everything from financial assurances (such as decommissioning bonds) to mandatory recycling.  Washington state has even proposed an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) program to start in 2025 that would seek to ensure sustainable practices by making the manufacturer financially responsible for recycling any of their products that are deployed in the state.  If passed as written, this responsibility could fall on the solar developers.  NREL has published a great survey of current federal and state level decommissioning policies in the U.S., which can be found here.

Map of state solar decommissioning policies in the United States (NREL 2021)

 

There is no question that more regulations around the proper handling and disposal of end-of-life systems are going to be popping up around the U.S. to help tackle this issue.  As an industry, we must all take responsibility in ensuring that sustainable end-of-life management is being thought through in the beginning of a project, as well as following through at its end.  Decom Solar can help guide and educate asset owners, developers, manufacturers, and more through the options available.  Visit www.decomsolar.com for more information.

According to the International Energy Agency, over 70,000 solar panels are being installed every hour around the world.  This rapid deployment is expected to grow year over year and, as it does, so will the volume of end-of-life modules.   While a major part of our mission at Decom Solar is repurposing modules that are still in working order, eventually these modules will need to be properly disposed of.  It is estimated that by 2050 there could be almost 100 million metric tons of decommissioned solar panels amassed around the globe and responsible recycling is the solution to make sure these are kept out of landfills.

Solar photovoltaic panels are arranged like a sandwich, with about 90% of them using silicon in the center as the semiconductor material.  Layered on top of the silicon are thin strips of conductive metal that collect the cells’ moving electrons and usher them into the panel’s copper wiring.  The cells are protected with an EVA plastic and a thicker glass on top and usually a PET plastic as the backsheet protection.  All layers are then encased in an aluminum frame, which is what physically connects and interfaces with solar racking systems.

Components of PV Module - NREL
Components of PV Module – NREL

With this material makeup, over 80% of a module’s weight consists of glass and aluminum, which are common and easily recyclable; however, the process of deconstructing the panels is complicated and intensive.  Due to this, recycling in the United States is expensive and often leads to owners either landfilling the equipment themselves or putting the onerous on fragile communities through donations without planning for the proper end-of-life solution.

The good news is that awareness on this urgent need is growing and leading to state-of-the-art recycling technologies, appropriate government regulations, and economic incentives to ensure that measures are in place to create a circular, clean solar lifecycle.  Decom Solar pledges to help lead this effort and in partnering with us, system owners can rest assured that this end-of-life issue is being addressed.  Visit www.decomsolar.com for more information.

Since solar installations began there have been conflicting opinions on how corporate clients should approach the useful roof life for their building. Commercial roofs are typically warrantied for 20 years, and solar arrays are meant to remain in place for 25+ years.  This creates a difficult decision for companies who are looking at installing solar. Do you re-roof prior to installation to keep warranty periods closely aligned or do you move ahead with the solar installation and deal with future roof issues as they arise?  It is generally recommended by solar developers that if your roof has 10+ years of usable life left it is most cost effective to move ahead with a solar installation, and they are not wrong, but did you budget for a decommission and re-installation in year ten of your solar array’s life? Typically, no.

Decom Solar has worked with several clients who have faced this exact scenario and it is expected that this will continue to be a problem to solve in the industry.  There are several factors to consider when the time for a re-roof arrives.

Communicating with permitting agencies is of top priority when assessing a re-roof and reinstallation of solar equipment. Often, the local authorities may require you to bring your existing solar array up to current code, which can result in significant costs for engineering, equipment, and installation.

Coordination with your roofing partner is the next key step in keeping re-installation costs down.  Different roof applications require different installation methods and understanding how the construction of the new roof is being performed can bring creative re-installation solutions to the forefront, mitigating significant labor costs.

Local incentive programs can also impact company’s decisions on a best path forward.  If incentive structures are still very strong, it is worth considering installing a new solar array all together, which may drive significant financial returns for your business.

No matter the scenario, it is highly recommended that companies get ahead of these challenges so they can understand the associated costs and budget accordingly.  Avoiding a scenario where your roof is failing, and you need to scramble to solve the problem, is of the utmost importance.

Decom Solar can help system owners work through the challenges of decommissioning and recommissioning a solar installation.  We pride ourselves on understanding all aspects of solar installations and we have successfully worked with developers, permitting agencies, and roofing partners to develop cost-effective solutions for our clients.

Whether you are just starting to look at solar or already have solar installed, Decom Solar can help plan for your future re-roofing needs.  Visit www.decomsolar.com for more information.

A recently decommissioned 305 kW solar array is having a huge impact for the local community in Jackson, Mississippi.  Croda International partnered with Decom Solar to decommission a system located at their former headquarters in Edison, New Jersey. After determining that the modules could not be reutilized at Croda’s new Plainsboro facility, they worked with Decom Solar to find a non-profit partner who could benefit from the donation of the still useful equipment.

“For us (Decom Solar), Croda represents the exact type of client that we look for.  Their insistence on making sure that functioning solar materials were used to help those in need aligns with our mission, so it was a perfect fit for our organizations,” said Steve Burns, Co-Founder of Decom Solar.

Croda donated all modules, racking and inverters from their system to three organizations who are using the supplies to have a positive impact in Mississippi:

  • The Jackson Resource Center raises funds and awareness for the local homeless population and is helping to distribute the used solar modules to local non-profits.
  • The Mileston Cooperative Association is a large-scale vegetable-growing operations that serves the local community. The solar modules donated have been installed and are being used to power their hydroponics system.
  • Kinkead Housing Foundation supports and develops low-income multifamily housing. Kinead is currently installing these modules on top of homes for the less fortunate and having an impact offsetting what can be burdensome electricity costs.

“Often times it can be something as small as an electricity bill that can be overwhelming for individuals, so this donation is having a huge impact on the communities that we serve,” said Ms. White of the Kinead Housing Foundation.

Decom Solar specializes in the solar decommissioning for corporate and industrial system owners. They partner with non-profits and certified recyclers to ensure that any solar waste they touch is properly disposed or re-deployed.  Visit www.decomsolar.com for more information.