In a noisy industrial factory on the outskirts of Yuma, Arizona, there is a machine that breaks old solar panels into pieces. It can process 10 panels per minute, up to 7,500 per day, extracting chunks of copper, silver and aluminum and pulverizing most of the rest into a grainy powder.
It is the largest U.S. recycling site for old photovoltaic panels, according to We Recycle Solar Inc, a four-year-old startup that owns the plant. The company sees a growing business opportunity in handling panels that would otherwise end up in a landfill. With potentially billions of panels expected to be disposed of in the coming years, the recycled materials market could reach US$2.7 billion (RM12.90 billion) annually by 2030, and US$80 billion (RM382.40 billion) by 2050, according to a report last year. from Rystad Energy.
We Recycle Solar is at the forefront of this growing industry. More than one terawatt of solar power has been installed worldwide, and researchers say that figure will need to rise to 75 terawatts by 2050 to combat climate change. Any that are installed will eventually have to be disposed of, said Adam Saghei, the company’s president and CEO.
There are thousands of old panels stacked at the Yuma facility, and on some days as many as 10 trucks come through the gates, each loaded with 400 to 800 others. Although there is a huge global push to install solar panels, he said the question of what will happen to them once the panels are removed has received little attention.
“It’s an excellent business model. We’re not going to run out of supply,” Saghei said. The company has already processed more than 500,000 panels and he expects that figure to reach one million by the end of the year. “This problem is getting worse every year. »
All over the world, people are trying to understand how to manage waste from the energy transition. Solar panels typically have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years, although many are replaced sooner. In the United States, installations began to accelerate after the Department of Energy introduced a key tax incentive in 2005, so that the panels that are removed from electrical systems are now just a trickle. water and will soon become a flood, said Meng Tao, an engineering professor. at Arizona State University.
“We’re seeing the first wave of waste right now,” said Tao, who is also part of ASU’s Global Sustainability and Innovation Institute and has studied the looming issue of photovoltaic waste disposal. “The amount will be so huge.”
He estimates that up to 90% of falling panels now end up in landfills, which is by far the cheapest option.
Throwing old panels into the landfill costs between $0.50 and $1.80 each, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, an independent research group. Taking the time and effort to sort them, break them into pieces, and then collect all the valuable materials can cost anywhere from $10 to $50 per panel.
We Recycle Solar has a multi-pronged strategy. Customers usually pay the company to take away the old panels. If the panels still work, We Recycle Solar resells them. Otherwise, they are broken into pieces and the raw materials can be sold. In both cases, customers receive a share of the revenue. Saghei would not share the company’s revenue but said it was profitable.
We Recycle Solar is able to find new homes for about 60% of the panels it processes and can sell them for up to US$160, Saghei said. That’s a lot more than the $5 to $7 he can get for the basic products he usually gets from a sprayed panel, although some older products can fetch up to $15 because the he industry previously demanded more silver in its products. He has shipped used panels so far to half a dozen countries, including Turkey, Panama and Morocco, and said the potential secondary market is huge, especially in developing countries.
“The longer we can reuse these products, the better,” said Evelyn Butler, vice president of technical services for the Solar Energy Industries Association trade group. “We have a huge amount of waste on our hands that we have no way of managing. »
Recycling is starting to take off, but it’s unlikely to gain traction without political mandates, Butler said. There are no federal regulations regarding disposal; Washington state has a policy that mandates environmentally sound panel disposal practices starting in 2025, and several other states are looking into the issue. But until there is more legislative pressure, homeowners are more likely to toss old panels into the landfill.
At the Yuma Recycling Site, workers sort through each panel to identify which ones can be resold and which ones are only valuable for their materials. These are placed on a belt and fed into a device equipped with three dozen hammers which break them into fragments. The pieces pass through a series of machines where they are sorted and sifted, crumpled and ground, until the base materials are separated and are ready to be sold.
Approximately 15% of the weight of each panel comes from aluminum, mainly from the frame, and 70% is glass. Some weeks the company might sell about 50,000 pounds of aluminum as scrap. Copper and silver are more valuable, but less abundant. Once passed through the machine, one of the end products is a granular powder, primarily glass, which can be sold for use as a sandblasting material.
We Recycle Solar is currently seeking funding to improve its panel destruction system and to expand. The Yuma site cost several million to build, and the company would like to raise enough money to build four more in the United States over the next three to five years. Saghei expects growing demand for its recycling services. Millions of panels will need to be removed in the coming years and he wants to be ready for this impending boom.
“We want all of this,” he said. -Bloomberg