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3/28/2024

The Solar Panel Waste Crisis, Debunked

Jesse Simons, Chief Commercial Officer and Co-Founder, SOLARCYCLE

Our world is facing a climate crisis, not a solar panel waste crisis. Yet, there have been bleak reports and headlines over recent years about a “tsunami” of solar panels coming offline. The reality is less alarming.  

Recent commentary in Nature by researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), found that concerns about the waste crisis are unfounded and, in some cases, they could be preventing the full deployment of solar panels across the United States.

Putting Solar Panel Waste into Context

The NREL researchers found that projections over 35 years (from 2016-2050) for PV solar panel waste is “dwarfed by the waste generated by fossil fuel energy and other common waste streams.” Coal ash alone represented 300-800 times the waste compared to solar panels, which means that coal is producing the same amount of waste monthly that solar is projected to produce in 35 years.

This means that projected solar panels coming offline are fractional compared to the waste generated by the fossil fuel industry, municipal waste, and other e-waste.

Given this context, coupled with 1) an increase in voluntary industry commitments to recycling, 2) manufacturers developing longer-lasting PV modules that are designed to be more easily recycled, and 3) the growing reuse market, means we still have time to scale the infrastructure to turn this potential challenge into a massive opportunity to increase the sustainability of solar and domestic PV supply chains.

A Golden Opportunity to Make Solar Even More Sustainable

Solar is one of the least carbon-intensive electricity producers, but it is still important to lower all impacts of the clean energy supply chain. While energy use and greenhouse gas emissions from solar panel operations are small to minimal, the manufacturing process does have a carbon footprint that must be addressed for the solar industry to become even more sustainable.  

The solar industry has a massive opportunity to improve its practices proactively. Our Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder, Dr. Pablo Dias, co-released a groundbreaking study on how to reduce carbon emission intensity from the solar industry by 85% through circular practices.  

Investing in Circular Strategies for Solar

SOLARCYCLE is using the roadmap outlined in Dr. Dias' article to both curb future landfilling and help decarbonize the industry by partnering with leading solar companies to recycle panels, reusing extracted and refined materials for the domestic supply chain, and powering our facilities with renewable energy.  

Since SOLARCYCLE was founded in 2022, we have partnered with forward-thinking solar companies, like AES, EDF Renewables North America, EDP Renewables North America, Greenbacker, Ørsted, Silfab, Silicon Ranch, and Sunrun who are investing in circular economy strategies to get ahead of the panels coming offline.  

Do you want to join the team?

Learn more about SOLARCYCLE.