Yuma is working to perfect the complicated process of recycling solar panels

Hope O’Brien

Cronkite News

Nestled between warehouses near the airport, We Recycle Solar reuses, reuses and recycles the growing supply of panels that have exceeded their expected 30-year lifespan.

Through multiple processes, the company refurbishes salvageable solar PV panels and breaks down worn panels into aluminum, granular glass and other materials that can be reused.

Waste is a growing problem around the world as solar power becomes more affordable and the need to reduce fossil fuel use is more acute on a warming planet.

But solar recycling in 2022 isn’t cost-effective, and not all of the materials used in solar panels can be mined — issues the industry and Arizona State researchers are working on.

In a joint report, the International Renewable Energy Agency and the International Energy Agency’s Photovoltaic Power Systems Program predicted that the United States would create up to 10 million tons of panel waste solar cells by 2050. That’s the weight of more than 45,000 jumbo jets.

Moreover, some of these wastes – lead in particular – are toxic and can cause serious health problems. Lead and other materials, including copper and silver, remain difficult to remove from recycled composite materials.

Of the 50 states, the US Energy Information Administration ranks Arizona fourth in net solar power generation, but second in solar power potential.

Dwight Clark, director of compliance and recycling technology at We Recycle Solar, said the company hopes to put Arizona at the forefront of recycling by being one of the few companies primarily focused on solar waste.

“I don’t believe there’s anyone else specifically designed to do solar recycling,” Clark said. “When we’re done, we’ll be purpose-built to do five full loads a day on one shift.”

What happens to a solar panel once recycled?

For now, the three-year-old company recycles manually, waiting for the equipment to develop. It is expected to arrive in mid-July, after a 24-week delay.

Dismantling a solar panel isn’t glamorous, but repurposing shines a light on the variety of materials needed to make solar power possible.

A typical day of solar panel recycling involves sawing, breaking aluminum frames, stacking and lifting, said Tracey Fenzel, team leader at We Recycle Solar.

When a solar panel enters the warehouse, workers determine whether it can be refurbished or recycled. The wiring is removed from the salvageable panels, and the glass and solar cells are separated from the aluminum frame.

The remains of the frameless panel are crushed and filtered. At the end of the process, the recycled panel becomes granular glass, plastics, adhesives, small pieces of silicon and bits of wiring and other debris to be processed and reused.

“We take a solar panel and basically break it down to its basic components,” Clark said.

Clark said We Recycle Solar started in 2019 as an end-of-life option for photovoltaic panels to keep them out of landfills.

“We’re aiming to avoid landfill for at least 95% of what goes through the door,” he said.

But solar recycling is evolving as recovery processes are still being perfected. And at the moment, recycling solar panels is not economically viable.

Clark said materials salvaged from a recycled solar panel only fetch $2 to $7. We Recycle Solar charges up to $20 per panel for recycling.

“Because there’s a cost to getting rid of them, I’ve seen thousands (of solar panels) end up in landfills,” Clark said.

Creating a sustainable option for decommissioned solar panels has encountered difficulties, he said. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the delivery of equipment needed to process a large volume of solar panels.

Once the facility is up and running, Clark said, it will have the capacity to recycle nearly 2,500 panels per day, compared to the 600 it can manually recycle.

The future of solar recycling

Clark said photovoltaic panels contain materials that are difficult to remove and can be harmful to the environment if thrown in the trash.

“You could put lead or other things in the landfill,” he said.

We Recycle Solar focuses on recycling aluminum and glass panels, but it also strives to remove traces of copper, silver and other metals from glass and plastics through chemical reduction. However, they are still adjusting the process.

At Arizona State University’s School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, a team led by Professor Meng Tao is researching ways to perfect the recycling process and recover all materials, including lead, from old solar panels. .

“The goal of this project is to eventually help our society solve a problem,” Tao said, and to make recycling more profitable.

“The end goal is that we can build a pilot plant and practice on a commercial scale,” he said.

Natalie Click, Ph.D. ASU candidate and research assistant who works with Tao and studies materials science and engineering, focuses on increasing recovery rates of lead, an extremely toxic metal, in its metallic form so that it can be reused as solder and other products.

“We want to be able to say that we can make sure that all of those valuable solar panel materials don’t just end up in the environment, that the lead isn’t going to contaminate your groundwater, that we can collect it and put it back in new solar panels,” Click said.

Cronkite News reporters Payton Major and Autriya Maneshni contributed to this story.

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