FROM THE CREW: Reclaiming & Recycling Solar

Beginner

As I sorted through our recycling before hauling it out to the curb, I was not thinking about what we will do with our PV modules once they reach the end of their life. Our modules carry a 30-year warranty and our array is only four years old, plus there’s a chance that most PV modules will outlive their warranties. Home Power founder Richard Perez said that there’s no reason a well-made PV module won’t last 70 years or more. Sometime down the line, however, we may be faced with replacing them—and figuring out a better place to retire them than the county dump.

In 2017 alone, more than 40 million PV modules were installed in the United States. These huge quantities will need to be dealt with in a constructive way. Even now, there are damaged PV modules that need to be properly disposed of—whether due to damage from hail, hurricanes, fires, accidents, or poor shipping and installation practices.

It’s estimated that approximately 90% of decommissioned PV modules end up in landfills. However, recycling them—and reclaiming their valuable materials—is possible and important. In fact, in 2012, Europe’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive mandated module recycling, requiring module manufacturers to collect and recycle modules at the end of their life cycle. The United States has no federal mandate, so in most locations PV module recycling is purely voluntary. Some states are tackling the issue, like Washington, which last year passed a solar stewardship bill requiring manufacturers selling PV modules in the state to offer recycling programs for their own products (effective 2021). New York is working on a similar bill. By California law, PV modules cannot be disposed of in landfills, but the state doesn’t yet provide recycling guidelines.

According to the International Energy Agency and SolarQuarter, two-thirds of globally manufactured PV modules are crystalline silicon (c-Si), which are typically 76% glass (module surface); 10% polymer (encapsulant and backsheet); 8% aluminum (mostly in the frame); 5% silicon (PV cells); 1% copper (interconnectors); and less than 0.1% silver (contacts) and other metals. Thin-film modules, by comparison, are 89% glass, 7% aluminum, 4% polymer, and 0.02% other metals, such as copper, indium, gallium, and selenium.

Capturing some of these materials and keeping them out of the waste stream is now being tackled by a handful of companies. First Solar has its own PV recycling plants for its cadmium-telluride thin-film modules. The Cleanlites recycling plant in Cincinnati, Ohio, accepts crystalline modules. Both companies are part of the Solar Energy Industries Association’s National PV Recycling Program. Industry veteran Sam Vanderhoof has launched Recycle PV Solar (recyclepv.solar) to help expand PV recycling. He recently announced that a solar recycling processing plant is being built in Arizona and will accept PV modules from across the United States. The PV recycling pilot program was scheduled to begin in August 2018. Plans include expansion to three other U.S. locations.

While our PV system’s modules will be producing power for at least the next quarter-century, it’s encouraging to know that solar industry players are taking the steps needed to ensure that our PV modules won’t end up in a landfill, even after their lives are over.

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