HeatSpring’s Brit Heller sits down with Kate Collardson, one of the founders of SolarRecycle.org, about the need for the solar industry to begin addressing solar power plant’s decommissioning and recycling for projects as they are being built today in order to have a truly sustainable future tomorrow. Kate’s day job is Senior Manager of Residential Operations at Omnidian. Along with all the founders of Solar Recycle, Kate created and supports the website on a volunteer basis. 

Brit: Why is there a big need for recycling equipment like PV modules? Why is it critical?

Kate: Our industry has based itself on a reputation of sustainability. It turns out that unless we think of our equipment all the way through its lifespan, through the end of its usable life, it’s not truly sustainable. To be truly sustainable, we should have a circular economy. 

Some people say that we have a tsunami of end-of-life equipment that is coming at us. Here’s what they mean…

I started installing in 2006. That’s when things started getting interesting in the industry. Those systems are around 15 years old now. We’re getting to the point where it’s not quite the end-of-life, but a lot will be coming offline soon. We’ve got much more efficient equipment, like more efficient modules these days.

For some projects, it makes sense to repower now, meaning take old equipment down and replace it with more efficient equipment. Within the next 10 years, the wave will really start and it’s not going to stop.

When we think about the solar adoption curve that really started growing in the mid 2000s, the end-of-life curve is going to follow that, just 20 years later.

Brit: Tell me the story of SolarRecycle.org. How did the idea come about? Who’s all involved?

Kate: We have a group of volunteers. All of us care passionately about our industry being truly sustainable. We’ve got Stacey McKinney, who is at SOLV Renewables. We’ve got Amanda Bybee, who is the CEO of Amicus O&M Cooperative; Angela Burke, who is with Pivot Energy; and Stephen Kane, who recently started with SPAN. 

We connected over recycling and over the need for a sustainable recycling program in our industry. It just doesn’t exist, so we batted around a few ideas. “Do we open our own recycling center in Colorado? Do we know how we might partner with other recycling groups?”

In the industry, when people would ask, “can you help me recycle?” Folks would say, “you should go talk to Kate or you should go talk to Amanda.” Especially because Amanda and I had gained a reputation for knowing about recycling, so many people reached out to us. We could see that there was a need. 

It became an attempt to get the information out of our brains and into the world. It’s a service to our industry, getting the information out there. Now, when people ask how they can recycle, we refer them to our website and it tells them a whole bunch of different places where they can recycle their solar equipment.

So that’s basically the story. The idea is that it’s an informational website that connects people who have end-of-life equipment with places where they can either sell, donate, or recycle it.

Map of solar equipment recycling facilities on SolarRecycle.org

Brit: That’s great. We certainly need this in our industry. When we’re thinking about recycling modules, what are some of the things that recyclers are able to salvage from them?

Kate: There are six waste streams from a solar module. First is the frame, which is aluminum and pretty easy to recycle. You can generally recycle that locally. Then, you’ve got things like your junction box which has some wires, maybe a little copper. Next is glass, which can be recycled into things like fiberglass road beads – those reflective beads on the highway when you’re driving and the stripe reflects back at you. There is then the plastic on your back sheet. You’ve also got your cells with silicon. Finally, you’re left with your remaining precious metals, like all of those busbars and the stuff that connects the cells together.

That’s all good material that recyclers find value in now. An interesting thing that has happened over the years is dematerialization. We’ve watched the cost curve come down for solar equipment from when I started. Back then, we were selling systems at $9/W sometimes.

We’ve watched that cost come down. Part of the reason is that the cost of manufacturing has dropped. The way we’ve brought the cost down is to take materials out of the modules, so everything is thinner. The frames are thinner. The glasses and the cells are thinner. We have a whole lot less things in our modules, which ultimately makes them less valuable at the end of their life. 

This is a bit of a conundrum for the recycling community right now. The solar equipment that’s coming offline today is a lot more valuable than what will be coming offline in the next 20 years. 

Brit: That’s just something I hadn’t considered. Can the recycler down the street take my solar modules?

Kate: That’s a good question. Modules are made to last in the elements – like rain, wind, and snow – outside for 25 years. You can imagine they’re not easy to take apart.

It’s not a straightforward process. It’s not like just taking the screws off and pulling the frames apart. It takes a lot more effort than that. There are several processes. No one process has emerged as the best way to recycle. 

There’s a really cool machine where you put a module in and there are hydraulics that pop off the frame. Then, this slicer cuts off the  junction box. There’s then this hot knife that slices between the glass and the cells. At the end, you’ve got your glass and you’ve got your back sheet and cells. You can then separate from there. The next process is usually a chemical process to separate all of those materials, like the metals from the silicon. 

There are other options out there too. For example, there’s a machine out of France that will take off the frames, the junction box, and then cut the glass and the laminate into two inch squares and then crush it. Then, it uses an optical sorter to sort the glass from the cell and the precious metals. You essentially come out at the end with these collections of different grades of glass and silicon and metals and plastics. It’s all pretty new. 

Brit: What a process! I know you include tons of info on the SolarRecycle site, but hearing how this stuff works and what’s new is really exciting. Are there any other new areas you will be tackling? Are you thinking of battery recycling already or is that still a few steps ahead?

Kate: That’s actually one of the questions that we ask recyclers. Some of the organizations listed on our website do accept batteries. We have a list of what chemistries they’ll accept. Lead acid already has a good circular economy.

One thing that we’ve been talking about a lot lately is the fact that there’s a lot more that goes into building a big solar site than just modules, inverters, and racks. We’ve also got things like concrete and pallets. There’s a great company, PV pallet, that’s working on exactly that – the challenge of pallets that comes with ordering many modules. We strive to really take into account all of the different aspects of what one might do with that concrete. Because when you’re decommissioning, folks want that concrete out of the ground, so that’s something that we are thinking about. How might we address that? 

Another area is decommissioning in general. There are a lot of varying opinions out there about what a decommissioning plan should look like. If you go online and you search, you can find decommissioning plans that say you will pay to recycle your modules, it’s going to be cost neutral to recycle your modules, and you’re going to get paid to recycle your modules. 

The third is fantasy, because it costs money to recycle modules. That is indicative that we don’t really know and we haven’t really thought this through. That’s why we are considering adding more information on decommissioning and maybe eventually having a decommissioning calculator and some sample plans to help people think through that step of the end-of-life process. We have a lot of dreams, but I think I’ll stop there!

Brit: Only so many hours in the day! I can totally relate.

If our readers want to get involved or support the effort, what are some things that people can do? 

Kate: One thing right away –  talk about this more. Send the SolarRecycle link around to your company to start the conversation. Let folks check it out.

We would love to be looking for volunteers right now as we have some gaps in our core competencies and are trying to figure out how to fill some of those gaps, but our capacity is quite limited. Send us a note through Solar Recycle if you would like to get involved eventually. I’ll be very honest. At this point, we really don’t have many ways to be involved, but it’s nice to have a list of folks who want to be. As we grow and develop the site and have more time, we hope to be able to engage more folks who really do want to help. 

For now, post about it. Put it on social media. Share it with your companies. The more folks who are considering it, the better off we all are as an industry. More companies and project owners have the opportunity to do the right thing and recycle their end-of-life equipment.

Brit: Absolutely. Is there anything else that’s worth noting about the website? 

Kate: Solar Recycle is a labor of love and a service to the industry. We want the information to be out there and accessible to people. 

One thing that’s on the website that I didn’t mention is policy. There’s a page on policy and what the different policies are throughout the US that we’ve identified thus far.

It’s important because policy is a driver of recycling. Interestingly, it is often seen as an anti-solar effort when states start requiring recycling at the end of life.

Brit: Thank you, Kate, and the entire volunteer team at Solar Recycle for building this incredible resource for the industry!