By definition, PV Recycling is a commodities broker, which means the company is not subject to the same regulations as a waste facility. The facility collects and reclaims commodities (metals, minerals, and chemicals) from PV products, mainly crystalline-silicon technologies—though the company is considering branching out to thin-film cadmium telluride technologies. (The company recently reached out to Abound Solar, a bankrupt Colorado-based solar manufacturer, with a $2.2 million proposal to recycle the company’s unsellable thin-film products.) The reclaimed commodities are sold to companies that can reuse them.
Last year, PV Recycling established a referral agreement with CERES, the voluntary European take-back program, to offer recycling and take-back solutions for European manufacturers that also sell PV modules in the United States.
In 2005, First Solar became one of the first companies in the industry to implement an in-house recycling program. The company produces thin-film modules that contain cadmium and tellurium, metals that are scarce in supply and highly toxic. Though safe when encapsulated in the module, these materials require special handling and operating standards during a module’s manufacturing and at its end of life.
“We’re a young industry compared to other electronic industries. I think it’s fair to say that we have learned what not to do. We started our program because we wanted to get it right from the start,” says Laura Abram, First Solar director of sustainability and community affairs.
The company provides packaging for the modules, and collects and transport the modules to one of its processing centers where components are treated and processed for recycling. The process recovers an estimated 95% of the semiconductor material, which is purified by a third party for reuse in First Solar modules. Approximately 90% of the glass is recovered and reused in new glass products.
First Solar has recycling operations at each of its manufacturing plants in Perrysburg, Ohio; Kulim, Malaysia; and Frankfurt, Germany. The company does not disclose specific vendor information, but says it has agreements with vendors in each region—material recovered at the Ohio facility, for example, is processed for reuse by vendors in the United States and Canada.
Most U.S. manufacturers have chosen not to establish in-house recycling facilities, largely because they say the current waste stream is not sufficient to support facility costs. Though First Solar’s quantities have been relatively low, Abrams says the “experience has prepared the company to handle high-volume recycling as more modules reach their end of life.”
The program started with a prefunded payment model, where, with the sale of each module, the company set aside funds to meet the costs of module collection and recycling. As of February, the prefunded option will only apply to European Union and pre-2013 sales. All U.S. module recycling will be funded by their customers, which, in First Solar’s case, are mainly utility-scale power plants.
“Although we are not experts in landfill disposal and related costs, from what we understand of current landfill disposal costs in California, our recycling prices are a commercially attractive alternative to landfill disposal,” says Alan Bernheimer, a First Solar spokesperson.
As a privately held company, PV Recycling does not disclose numbers, and since there is no coordinated industry effort to track waste data yet, it is difficult to assess the actual demand for recycling services. Over the next few years, the majority of PV modules ready to be recycled will be those damaged during distribution or installation.
SEIA estimates that annual PV end-of-life modules will not exceed 10,000 tons until after 2014, and will not exceed 100,000 tons until after 2017. Smirnow says the estimate is based on historical and projected PV installations.
“Products today must be designed with recycling and material recovery in mind, so they are made with materials that have reuse value,” says Sheila Davis, executive director for the e-waste watchdog group Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. “It takes time to build the necessary infrastructure. The [solar] industry is essentially starting from scratch, and it needs time to work out the kinks and get this right. There’s too much at stake. We only have a small window of opportunity to ensure that this industry remains truly clean and green.”