Major U.S. solar asset owner agrees to panel recycling pilot


Major solar asset owner AES Corporation signed a recycling services agreement with Solarcycle, a tech-driven PV recycler. The pilot agreement will involve a construction breakage and end-of-life solar panel waste evaluation across the company’s entire asset portfolio.

Under the agreement, AES will send damaged or retired panels to Solarcycle’s Odessa, Texas facility to be recycled and repurposed. Valuable materials like glass, silicon, and metals such as silver, copper, and aluminum will be reclaimed at the site.

“To strengthen U.S. energy security, we must continue to support domestic supply chains,” said Leo Moreno, president, AES Clean Energy. “As one of the world’s leading energy solution providers, AES is committed to sustainable business practices that accelerate these goals. This agreement is an important step in building a vibrant secondary market for end-of-life solar materials and getting us closer to a true domestic circular solar economy.”

AES announced its long-term growth strategy includes plans to triple its renewables portfolio to 25 GW 30 GW of solar, wind and storage assets by 2027 and fully exit investment in coal by 2025. This increased commitment to renewables places increased importance on responsible end-of-life practices for the company’s assets.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory projects that by 2040, recycled panels and materials could help meet 25% to 30% of U.S. domestic solar manufacturing needs.

What’s more, without changes to the current structure of solar panel retirements, the world could witness some 78 million tons of solar trash disposed in landfills and other waste facilities by 2050, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). It predicts the U.S. will contribute 10 million metric tons of trash to that 2050 total. To put into context, the U.S. dumps almost 140 million tons of waste each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

A 2021 report by Harvard Business Review said it costs an estimated $20-$30 to recycle one panel but sending it to a landfill costs around $1 to $2. With poor market signals to recycle panels, more work is needed to be done to establish a circular economy.

Solarcycle said its technology can extract more than 95% of the value in a solar panel. The company was awarded a Department of Energy $1.5 million research grant to further assess refinement processes and maximize recovered material value.

“Solarcycle is excited to be working with AES – one of the largest solar asset owners in America – on this pilot program to assess their existing and future recycling needs. As demand for solar energy grows rapidly in the United States, it is critical to have proactive leaders like AES who are committed to developing a more sustainable and domestic supply chain for the solar industry,” said Suvi Sharma, chief executive officer and co-founder of Solarcycle.

In July 2022, the Department of Energy announced a funding opportunity that made available $29 million to support projects that increase the reuse and recycling of solar technologies, develop PV module designs that reduce manufacturing costs, and advance the manufacturing of PV cells made from perovskites. Of the $29 million, $10 million in spending launched by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will be directed toward PV recycling.

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.

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