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.

There are plenty of options to consider when you are dealing with a solar decommissioning project and often companies do not have time to explore all available solutions.  At Decom Solar, we welcome the opportunity to assess your project and explore these options so that you can get the best value for your project and do what is right for future generations. We offer turnkey solar decommissioning and cover everything from sourcing the right partners through deconstruction, with a clear understanding of your business objectives.

LandfillLandfill

The worst option.  This option, while it may cost less, is destructive to our planet and the harmful substances in solar equipment will eventually leech into our water table.  If you are electing to go this route, Decom Solar is not the right fit for you, however we can provide alternative solutions that are more valuable for your business.

Recycle Recycling

Only in cases where equipment has no life left should recycling be considered.  This option is expensive and, in most cases, can be avoided.  If recycling is the only option for your equipment, we are partnered with certified solar recyclers throughout the country and we can source the most cost-effective solution for you.

RefurbishRefurbish

Depending on the age and useful life left with your solar modules, refurbishment is a great option to consider for your decommissioning project.  Often, solar modules still have value, and you can get paid for your used equipment.  We work with refurbishing partners who are focused on keeping solar materials out of landfills and provide cost-savings for your project.

Donation

If your solar equipment is in good condition, there are dozens of non-profits throughout the country who will happily take the modules as a charitable donation.  Benefits of going this route include receiving a charitable donation certificate for your material, having a positive impact on local communities, and creating a marketable story for your company and the non-profits you work with.

Allow Decom Solar to handle all of the legwork and clearly present all options to your company so that you can make an informed decision and receive the most value for your equipment.  By partnering with Decom Solar you can remain focused on your day to day while knowing that you are getting the best solution for your solar decommissioning project and our planet.  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.