Many plans designed to deal with climate change depend on the use of clean energy from the sun, or solar power. But the equipment necessary for solar power sometimes gets damaged or wears out. These solar panels often end up as waste in landfills.
A business based in Yuma, Arizona, is trying to deal with what its founders call a tsunami of solar waste. The company is called We Recycle Solar.
Large amounts of waste
Workers move large numbers of solar panels with special machines, then lift each out by hand to begin separating by maker and model. Some panels only have a few cracks in their glass.
These panels can be reused, said company chief Adam Saghei.
The panels that do not go to testing and resale instead go to a special area where glass, metals, and other materials with value are separated.
Solar panels are built to survive many years of bad weather, so it is difficult to take them apart.
Separating the glass without it breaking, for example, is difficult. But We Recycle Solar uses special robotic devices that can do the work successfully.
Some of the highest value materials in solar panels are copper, silver, aluminum, glass, and crystalline silicon.
For Saghei, the idea for the company came in 2017. He was working in the computer electronic waste sector. He saw solar panels spread across roofs and wondered where the panels would go in the future. He said he realized that green technology does not stay green once it is no longer being used.
Copper is one metal the recycling process produces, said Dwight Clark, director of recycling technology at We Recycle Solar. Clark said there is not a lot of copper in each solar panel. But when the company recycles around 4500 kilograms of solar panels in an hour, the company can get over a hundred kilograms of copper.
By 2050, solar panel waste will total some 78 million tons worldwide, said Mool Gupta of the University of Virginia. The reason recycling and recovery is not very strong yet, Gupta said, is that companies do not want to pay the $30 per panel cost when it costs only $1 to send it to a landfill.
Garvin Heath is a renewable energy expert at the U.S. Department of Energy. He said the cost to recycle should not be more than the cost to put solar panels in landfills. He said consumers should not have to pay anything and recycling businesses should not suffer financial losses.
Other companies are starting to get into the business.
Solarcycle, a new company based in Odessa, Texas, raised $30 million earlier this year. And Solarpanelrecycling.com is connected to electronics recycler PowerHouse Recycling.
The European Union has rules that require recycling of electronic waste under its Waste Electrical and Electronic Waste Directive (WEEE).
Market researcher Visiongain estimates the global market for solar panel recycling at $138 million for last year and growing fast.
Jack Groppo of the University of Kentucky says people have to stop sending solar panels to the landfill as soon as possible. “Once the solar panels go into the landfill, they’re gone unless we go back and mine the landfill,” he said.
Groppo estimates that in 20 years people will mine landfills to get valuable materials in the solar panels. But he said it makes more sense to separate the panels at their retirement instead.
The Yuma facility can process 7,500 panels in a single day. As of early June, it estimates more than 650,000 tons of carbon dioxide waste production have been avoided. It is reusing about 60 percent of the panels that come in.
The company plans to open another recycling center next to a large solar manufacturer in the southeastern part of the country.
For now, solar recycling companies are still looking for a way to make money. But Gupta said these profitability issues are temporary. Researchers are hard at work on solving them, he said.
He added, “Too many lives are lost to pollution and solar is one of the top solutions.”
I’m John Russell.
Isabella O’Malley reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
panel – n. a flat piece of equipment that uses the sun's light or heat to create electricity
recycle – v. to make something new from (something that has been used before)
landfill – n. a system in which waste materials are buried under the ground