Utility-scale developer to recycle 95% of value of end-of-life solar panels with SolarCycle


Silicon Ranch Corporation, developer of solar and energy storage and independent power producer, announced it entered an agreement with SolarCycle to recycle end of life solar modules for re-entry into the supply chain. SolarCycle said it recovers roughly 95% of the value of a panel in its process.

SolarCycle, launched earlier this year, is currently establishing a new panel recycling center, aimed at maximizing material reuse for the creation of a circular economy. The center is expected to open Q4.

Research by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that by 2040, for key materials, recycling can meet 25-30% of domestic solar manufacturing needs in the United States. The recycling partnership will help fuel the supply chain by returning glass, silicon, silver, copper aluminum, and other key materials to manufacturing facilities.

The NREL model of a circular economy.
Image: NREL

NREL said solar panel waste could cumulatively be as high as 1 million metric tons by 2030 and 10 million metric tons be 2050. This represents a looming problem yet to be fully addressed by the industry, but also offers a great opportunity. Rystad Energy estimates that recyclable materials from PV panels at the end of their lifespan will be worth more than $2.7 billion in 2030, up from $170 million this year, and the value may approach $80 billion by 2050.

Rystad estimates peak solar energy implementation in 2035 of 1.4 TW, by which time the recycling industry should be able to supply 8% of the polysilicon, 11% of the aluminum, 2% of the copper, and 21% of the silver needed by recycling solar panels installed in 2020 to meet the material demand. The result will be increased ROI for the solar industry, an enhanced supply chain for materials, as well as a reduction in the need for carbon intensive mining and refinery processes.

Silicon Ranch has a 5 GW portfolio of solar and battery storage systems that are contracted, under construction, or operational across the U.S. and Canada. The company operate more than 145 solar facilities across 15 states. The agreement marks a significant step for SolarCycle, as Silicon Ranch is its first utility-scale customer.

“As the long-term owner of every project in our portfolio, we at Silicon Ranch are deeply committed to our relationships and responsibilities in the communities we serve. These responsibilities include end-of-life equipment management,” said Reagan Farr, Silicon Ranch president and CEO. “This partnership supports our commitments to advance domestic solar manufacturing, a circular solar economy, and economic development opportunities in communities across the country. We encourage others in the industry to join us in this meaningful endeavor.”

NREL said there are a lack of incentives or penalties in the U.S. today to encourage recycling. NREL analysts modeled a current average recycling cost of $28 per module, repairs at $65 per module, and landfills at only $1.38 per module. Used modules could be sold at 36% of new module prices.

Based on those figures, the analysts estimated that over the next 30 years, 80% of modules will be landfilled, 1% reused, and 10% recycled.

The NREL study showed that a reduced recycling cost would add a significant boost in adoption. Lowering the cost per module from $28 to $18, for example, could potentially lead to an increase in the recycling rate by more than one-third by 2050.

Higher material recovery rates also would drive adoption. New processes that recover high value materials like silver, copper, and silicon for reuse could create a recycler cumulative net income of $1.3 billion by 2050, said NREL.

As for Silicon Ranch and SolarCycle, the agreement marks a significant step on the way to bringing U.S. solar panel recycling capacity and efficiency to maturity.

“SolarCycle’s team is taking what we learned in the solar, sustainability, and recycling industries and applying it to our tech-driven recycling solutions. We know that scale matters in order to be able to drive costs down and bring quality up,” said Suvi Sharma, CEO and co-founder of SolarCycle.

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