Preparing for the Future: Solar Recycling

What happens to solar equipment at the end of its useful life? Learn how existing and new recycling initiatives support the ongoing sustainability of solar.

The State of Solar Recycling Today

In the early 2000s, the US solar market had less than 5 GWdc of installed capacity. Today, that number has grown significantly to around 150 GWdc, comprising 5% of the country's energy generation. As the industry continues to grow, many are beginning to wonder what will happen to the outdated equipment that will inevitably accumulate.

The answer? Recycle it, of course!

Simple supply chains for the recycling of solar equipment already exist today. When SunPeak encounters defective, damaged, or obsolete components, we send them to reputable electronics recyclers for proper disposal. Recycling solar modules involves extracting various components that are commonly reused, such as aluminum, glass, and plastic. With aluminum and glass alone accounting for over 80% of a solar module by weight, recycling and reusing these materials eliminates a significant amount of end-of-life waste.

The Value of Precious Metals
Although the majority (by weight) of the solar module can be recycled, modules also contain silicon and trace amounts of precious metals like silver and copper that give the module its electricity-generating properties. Extracting these materials is more challenging. The current supply of obsolete solar modules is limited, so the extraction process is still rather niche, expensive and uncommon. 

Thankfully, recycling techniques are evolving quickly. Even though silver and copper account for less than 3% of the weight of a solar module, these materials account for about 60% of its recycled monetary value. As the quantity of solar waste (and economic opportunity) grows, recyclers will be able to introduce economies of scale to the process, reducing their costs to capture the hidden mineral value on obsolete modules.

Notably, the value of recycled silver is expected to increase significantly as the demand for solar equipment continues to rise. Currently there is not enough raw silver available to meet the projected demand for solar equipment. A market for recycled silver will inevitably blossom to meet the shortfall in raw supply, with recyclers being at the forefront of these transactions. 

Total Module Recycling

This industry shift towards total module recycling is playing out in real time. This month, the world’s first factory entirely dedicated to total module recycling opened in Grenoble, France. The facility, run by the company ROSI, will be using physical, thermal, and soft chemistry mechanisms to efficiently separate each material for maximum reuse and resale value. The plant will be able to process 3,000 tons of module waste in its first year, with plans to expand to 10,000 tons per year next year.

Key Takeaways
Solar equipment recycling will become a critical part of the supply chain over the next two to three decades, when the installed equipment from the current solar boom starts to become obsolete en masse. While the existing recycling capacity is nowhere near enough to address the impending obsolescence, momentum in the industry is actively evolving and increasing to address the future recycling demand. With sustained growth in recycling capabilities, it is clear that the 150 GWdc of solar equipment installed today will have the opportunity to be adequately recycled when it reaches the end of its useful life.

Hartman Hoel

Project Development Manager

Hartman works with prospective customers throughout the project development process, answering questions related to project design and finance, performing site-specific energy analyses, and designing preliminary system layouts based on customer goals and site specifications. Hartman is a civil engineer and holds a PVA (Photovoltaic Associate) credential from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners® (NABCEP). His professional design experience includes large commercial solar PV systems and transmission systems for utility-scale wind and solar.