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3/27/2024

Separating Fact From Fiction After Extreme Weather Hits Solar Farms

Jesse Simons, Chief Commercial Officer and Co-Founder, SOLARCYCLE
Sun and hail raining down on solar panels with the state of Texas in the background

Like many in the solar industry, I was devastated to read about the loss of thousands of solar panels outside of Houston, Texas due to a severe hailstorm earlier this week.  

America needs more solar power nationwide to solve the climate crisis. Yet, the irony is that energy infrastructure of any kind can be impacted by extreme weather, which is only getting worse with climate change.  While the extent of the damage is unknown, the next step will be to recover, repair, and recycle the damaged panels and get the solar farm running again.  

When damage at this scale happens, there can be a lot of information flying around, and it can be difficult in the moment to separate fact from fiction. As the country’s most advanced solar recycling company, we know a few things about what happens when a solar panel breaks. Our team is made up of scientists and engineers, who have dedicated our careers to making sure that broken or retired solar panels are recycled safely and sustainably.  

Here are three myth busting tips to ensure that the public better understands what happens when a solar panel breaks:  

Myth #1: When solar panels break, they become hazardous to human and environmental health.

Reality: The International Energy Administration (IEA) studied whether solar panels posed a significant threat to human and environmental health, and if broken panels would impact local groundwater. They conclusively found that even if the panels were smashed and processed in a basic landfill, there would be no significant hazard to local communities.  

There are two main types of solar panels: crystalline silicon and thin film and neither of them pose a threat to human or environmental health. Modern crystalline silicon panels are now largely made with only trace amounts of lead. Even when broken, they are encased in an encapsulant that prevents lead from leaching into the environment.  

Thin film panels contain trace amounts of cadmium and tellurium, but they are bonded chemically into CdTe, and that bond is almost impossible to break. Even in the event of module breakage in an extreme weather event, the non-water soluble CdTe layer is bound to the glass by an industrial laminate material and studies (as well as its track record in the field) have shown it will not impact the local environment.  

Myth #2: Broken panels will sit on site for years, making them an eyesore for local communities and an unreliable source of energy.

Reality: The owners and operators of utility-scale solar farms have every incentive to remove broken panels as soon as possible and get their site working again with new panels.  

Owners almost always have insurance that covers disposal and advanced recycling, such as the services that SOLARCYCLE provides nationwide. We recently provided rapid recycling services to a major solar farm in Nebraska. They were able to rebuild the site quickly, and we recycled their broken panels. Our process extracts up to 95% of the valuable silver, silicon, copper, glass and aluminum and we returned their recycled materials back to the supply chain for domestic clean energy manufacturing.

For the unbroken panels that were recovered, SOLARCYCLE used them to build our own small solar farm at our Odessa, Texas facility. Now, we are reusing those panels to power our recycling operations.  

Myth 3: Solar panels cannot be recycled and end up in local landfills.

Reality: Companies like SOLARCYCLE are recycling panels today and returning those valuable materials right back to the domestic supply chain for clean energy.  

Our factory in Odessa, Texas will soon be capable of processing one million panels a year, and we just announced two similar factories in Arizona and Georgia. Solar panels have significant monetary value in terms of critical materials that the industry would otherwise import from China. It increasingly makes financial sense for large solar companies to recycle, rather than landfill.  

That’s why SOLARCYLE has long-term contracts for recycling services with nearly 50 of the largest solar companies in the United States, which demonstrates that leaders are proactively responding to solving this problem. As an industry, recycling is a massive opportunity to help build America’s clean energy future.

Preparing for What’s Next

If we follow the science, we can expect that there will be more extreme weather in the future. SOLARCYCLE is ready to work with you to prepare for it. If you are a solar company looking to join the circular economy, we recommend that you:

  1. Purchase panels with a low environmental footprint, including double checking that they are lead-free and meet the new EPEAT standards.
  1. Carry insurance that covers rebuilding and recycling panels.
  1. Work with companies like SOLARCYCLE to include recycling in your decommissioning plans and Power Purchase Agreements.
  1. Install solar panels that can better withstand severe weather events such as intense hailstorms, especially if your area is prone to extreme weather. Stronger, glass can help – and that’s why we just announced a state-of-the-art glass factory in Georgia to spec for glass that can withstand tough outdoor elements.

Solar is now the fastest growing form of energy in America. We need it to power our future. If we use the lessons from Texas to adapt as an industry, we can make solar even smarter and more sustainable in the years to come.