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Should I Send My Old Solar Panels Abroad? An E-Waste Expert Weighs In

Dr. Pablo Dias, Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder, SOLARCYCLE
Graphic of earth with arrows and solar panels around it

When I tell people that I co-founded SOLARCYCLE, a US-based company that recycles solar panels, one thing I’m often asked is, “What about reuse?”  

Reuse is good! I grew up in Brazil, where many people in my community found ways to make old products new again. I have dedicated my life’s work to e-waste research and believe that reusing solar panels is a key strategy in creating a truly circular economy. But reuse is not always straightforward. Anyone interested in reusing PV needs to ask another key question: “What is the best way to reuse panels?”  

Anyone interested in reusing PV needs to ask another key question: “What is the best way to reuse panels?”  

While we don’t have exact numbers, many retired solar panels in the US, Australia, and the EU are ending up overseas. Solar owners who want to send retired modules abroad have the best intentions at heart. They see exporting modules as a way to help lower-income countries, who all too often lack reliable electricity and desire local, clean energy systems.  

At first glance, this approach seems like a win-win. Asset owners can feel good about their donation and lower-income countries can access low-cost modules. However, prior to taking this approach, it is important to consider that there are better options to exporting modules to emerging economies — at least for now.  

In this blog, I will explore the three reasons why we at SOLARCYCLE believe in keeping retired solar panels in the domestic circular economy, rather than sending them abroad to be reused.

1. Lower-Income Countries Need New Modules

Second-life modules are less powerful and reliable than new modules. Sending them abroad is a poor substitute for helping countries increase access to reliable clean energy.  

The desire to help ease energy poverty in lower- and middle-income nations is important. But the current situation reminds me of what happened a few decades ago, when there was excitement about sending older laptops, printers, and other digital tools to lower-income countries to help reduce the digital divide.  

The reality is that many of these “gifts” were nonfunctional at the time of donation — and many more quickly ended up in local landfills. Since there were few standards set in place, the donations created an additional burden on local communities. We don’t want to repeat this pattern with solar.  

Today, we don’t have solid research on the performance of secondhand solar modules —nor do we have good standards in place to protect consumers. Furthermore, exporting a retired module to a lower- or middle-income country from a higher-income nation often means sending the panels a long distance, which creates additional environmental burdens via the shipping emissions. It also raises the risks that the panel may be damaged in transport.

Until we get better data on second-life module reliability, and develop standards and best practices, the best way to help countries suffering from energy poverty is to help them develop new systems that can take advantage of more powerful and resilient solar technologies. Nordholm and Sareen (2021) argue that utilities and power producers need to develop both large-scale projects and smaller, more local installations.

In the future, to have more confidence that second-life modules are worth reusing, we need to answer some questions. We at SOLARCYCLE and our partners are asking:

  • How does the module’s condition translate into longevity?  
  • What’s the real reduction in power conversion efficiency when retired modules are put back in the field?  
  • What module technologies work best in second-life systems?  

2. Most Countries Lack PV Recycling Infrastructure

Many lower- and middle-income countries lack the infrastructure to recycle PV at end-of-life (EOL), which means that donated panels are likely to be recycled in an informal recycling area with minimal worker or environmental protections.

By now, you might be thinking, maybe new PV systems are better — and maybe emerging economies need big investments — but what’s the harm in sending retired panels overseas? The answer is simple: few lower-income countries have the infrastructure required to safely recycle PV and other kinds of e-waste.

Working with my co-authors Andréa Moura Bernardes and Nazmul Huda in 2022, we examined the state of e-waste management in both developed and developing countries. We found that waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is growing in both developed and developing settings, and that the transboundary flows of WEEE are “one of the world’s greatest pollution problems”.  

Although wealthy nations produce more WEEE, developing nations suffer the brunt of the problem because most developing countries don’t currently collect, store, separate, and recycle WEEE — nor do they monitor waste flows and deal with the massive risks to human health and the environment that e-waste creates.  

Other researchers have investigated the export of e-waste and found similar problems. In 2021, Samuel Abalansa and colleagues explored the benefits and challenges of e-waste recycling in developing countries. Although recycling provides jobs, most of the e-waste exported to developing countries is handled by “informal” recycling centers that are largely “unregulated” and use “simple, rudimentary equipment” to recycle waste electronics, which we do not use at SOLARCYCLE.  

Not surprisingly, common methods like burning the insulation off copper wires or putting computer mother boards into acid baths by hand exposes workers to toxic chemicals and often leads to toxic materials contaminating the environment. Although PV modules are far less hazardous than batteries or circuit boards, The New York Times reported in 2019 that solar panels were contributing to the e-waste problem in East Africa, and The Guardian reported similar e-waste findings in India.  

This is not to say retired modules can never be reused abroad; it just means we must be cautious so that lower- and middle-income countries without recycling resources don’t get burdened with e-waste that they can’t recycle.

This is not to say retired modules can never be reused abroad; it just means we must be cautious so that lower- and middle-income countries without recycling resources don’t get burdened with e-waste that they can’t recycle. Also, given our core company values at SOLARCYCLE of building a circular economy for solar, we don’t want to lose access to the useful materials embedded in solar panels if they are thrown into landfills abroad or not kept within the domestic circular economy. This makes it much more difficult and expensive for the US to build our own circular solar manufacturing base.  

3. A Better Solution is Available Today

We have a better solution for old panels that are still operational: install them here in the U.S. where there are stricter EOL regulations and a growing PV recycling infrastructure.

So, what should we do with retired panels that still have life in them? The good news is that there are best practices today on where to send your panels to ensure they are not landfilled or contribute to existing e-waste problems abroad.  

At SOLARCYCLE, our vision is to develop behind-the-meter secondhand solar power plants to power our recycling and glass factories. With this approach, retired panels are only shipped once. We use them as long as we can, maximizing the climate benefits of that panel, and when they are ready to be recycled, they are close to a facility that can handle the panels safely, and recycle the PV into new value-added products that we can sell back to solar manufacturers located near our various recycling facilities.

Illustration of SOLARCYCLE's solar reuse facility

This approach provides the benefits that those in favor of reuse seek — without saddling another country with more e-waste. By reusing these panels close to home, we can reduce shipping distance and gather valuable data about module longevity that can help the industry figure out what kind of modules are best suited for reuse.  

Once we develop these datasets, we will share this knowledge with EPCs so they can build high-efficiency second life projects close to permitted high-value recycling facilities. This approach will help us create a more circular solution that maximizes value while protecting workers and the environment.  

As the PV recycling industry grows, we are excited to partner with industry to create solutions that will avoid the risks of sending panels overseas while creating benefits for communities in the U.S. and around the world.  

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