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A circular approach to electrification and renewable energy

If current, low recycling rates continue, decommissioned PV modules could instead add up to 1 million tons of waste in the U.S. by 2030.

Rows of PV modules. Sunset can be seen in the background.

While electrification and renewable energy are key to decarbonizing the economy, the growing demand for solar PV may be creating a new problem. Today's standard practices for solar manufacturing and disposal need close examination — especially as demands for the cheap, clean energy is set to increase. 

The market for recovered materials from modules alone could total $60 million by 2030 and $2 billion by 2050 in the United States. But if current, low recycling rates continue, decommissioned PV modules instead could add up to 1 million tons of waste in the U.S. by 2030. (That’s 1 percent of the world's e-waste.)

To understand what it will take to tap into this opportunity, I spoke to Taylor Curtis, sustainability analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), who focuses on analyzing the current regulatory structures in the U.S. that affect recycling, reuse and repair of solar modules, panels and balance of system equipment such as inverters. Curtis is the lead author on a new report that addresses drivers, barriers and enablers of a more circular approach to solar PV system materials. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Lauren Phipps: What is NREL’s approach to the circular economy for the solar industry? 

Taylor Curtis: One of the pillars of NREL’s strategic objective is focused on creating a circular economy for energy materials. That is everything from design to more durable and longer lasting products, in addition to how to design those products for easier repair and end of life and sustainable resourcing from other countries. On the other side is addressing  [what's] already out there: How can we get those materials back into our supply chains instead of just landfilling all of these materials?

In the U.S. in the last 10 years, we’ve lost 90 percent of our market share in solar and we’re importing most of the materials [for solar energy development.] We have a great opportunity here to try to recover those resources, to increase our supply chain stability, to create new and expanded job markets and to create manufacturing opportunities as well.

For recycling solar modules, it costs anywhere from $15 to $45 per module, when you can dispose of them for as cheap as $1 a piece in some of the landfills in the U.S.

Phipps: The report quotes the current PV recycling rate at less than 10 percent in the U.S. What is currently happening to solar modules once a system is decommissioned? 

Curtis: For recycling solar modules, it costs anywhere from $15 to $45 per module, when you can dispose of them for as cheap as $1 a piece in some of the landfills in the U.S. That’s a huge discrepancy. 

That’s because recycling technology is not designed for modules. What we’re doing right now is only recovering the bulk materials like aluminum and steel from the backings, and glass, and we’re running them through existing glass lines in facilities. It’s not very efficient and we’re not recovering the high value materials that actually have money in the market. The cost to extract materials is way less than what they’re getting on the market. If it costs $45 to process them and you’re only getting $2 worth of materials out of it, then we have to figure something out there. 

Phipps: What is the biggest barrier preventing a more efficient and economically viable system?

Curtis: In the U.K. recycling only costs 70 cents per module and the rate is up to 95 percent. That is largely because they have a policy at the federal level that requires the implementation of recovery. In the U.S., we don’t have that. 

A lot of the U.S. laws — especially solid waste laws — treat recycling and disposal the same, making it more difficult to recycle and more difficult to reuse equipment. If there’s not a reduced regulatory burden, there’s not a whole lot of incentive to recycle when the cost is so much higher.

Phipps: What policies are you referring to? 

Curtis: The big barrier that I harp on in the report is RCRA, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, and how it treats disposal and recycling the same. This might be all well and good if everything else was the same in terms of cost and accessibility [of recovery infrastructure], but we’re not there yet. That is a really big challenge that we need to figure out. 

Some states are moving in the right direction on that, but there’s not a lot. 

Washington state is the only one that doesn't treat disposal and recycling the same, but they’re also requiring manufacturers to reuse and recycle — and no other jurisdiction is doing that — so what I keep hearing is that solar developers are not going or sell into that state until there’s a need to because Washington’s not a huge solar market anyway. 

Phipps: What will it take to ensure a more circular system for solar? 

Curtis: There are a number of technical barriers and information gaps right now. We need more R&D and analysis and more publicly available information that will make it easier for investments. But we also need policy, and I say that in a broad way. We’re going to need incentives and direct government funding for R&D and research that’s needed. 

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