Coach Dave’s Playbook

Happy September! A couple of quick policy updates to lead off: 

  • New DC clean energy legislation introduced – In late July, DC councilmember Mary Cheh introduced the Clean Energy DC Act of 2018, which would require 100 percent of the electricity sold in the District to come from renewable sources by 2032. To the disappointment of some activists, the bill does not include a carbon tax. Regardless, I view this as a promising development for the city and I’m excited about the prospect of a more aggressive clean energy goal for the District. For more information, read these articles from The Architect’s Newspaper and Greater Greater Washington. The DC Chapter of the Sierra Club has also published a helpful fact sheet. A public hearing is scheduled for October 9; check out the Council website for more details. 

 

  • California enacts 100% clean energy bill. With the Governor’s signature on September 10, California enacted legislation requiring the state to obtain 100% of its power from clean sources by 2045. California has become the second state in the U.S. to rely solely on clean energy by 2045. (Hawaii was the first to implement such a plan.) This is a really big deal, because California is such a huge state—in fact, it’s the fifth-largest economy in the world.1 David Roberts from Vox breaks down what this all means here. I also recommend listening to this podcast episode from The Energy Gang. 

 

Going Deep: Solar and Recycling  

I don’t think I need to expound on the benefits of solar energy, or its potential to address urgent issues like air quality and global climate change. I do think it’s interesting, and prudent, to look ahead and think about the “lifecycle” perspective for photovoltaic equipment. 

As the solar market expands and competition drives down the cost of photovoltaics, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimated that the industry will produce 78 million tons of waste by 20502 -- a wave of 35.3 million panels, not counting the hundreds of millions of panels that flooded the U.S. market in the last decade that may need to be disposed of sooner.3 The industry standard life span for solar modules (panels) is 25 to 30 years. 

Part of the problem is that solar panels are complicated to recycle. They’re made of many materials, some hazardous, and assembled with adhesives and sealants that make breaking them apart challenging.4 

Most solar panels are made from glass, polymer, aluminum (frames), silicone, copper and less than 0.1 percent of silver, tin and lead. Silver makes up a very small fraction of the mass of a solar panel, but a very high fraction of its value—about 47 percent. We might think of that as almost half of the incentive a recycler has to recycle a panel. Silver is worth significantly more than other recoverable components—aluminum, copper, silicon and glass.5  

According to GreenBiz, manufacturers are finding ways around using components that would have value to recyclers, such as copper and silver.6 What’s more, 75 percent of the material that gets separated out is glass, which is easy to recycle into new products but also has a very low resale value. 

To summarize: the underlying commodity value of the solar panels is falling. The less value a recycler can extract, the less incentive there is to recycle.7 System owners recycle their panels in Europe because they are required to. Panel recycling in an unregulated market (like the United States) will only work if there is value in the product.8  

And the recycling process itself is still pretty crude. Involves mechanically shredding and crushing the panels, then chemically separating out the more valuable materials.9 

Solar panel disposal and recycling isn’t a huge issue right now—in 2018—because there isn’t a big enough volume to cause concern. Solar panels are warrantied to perform more than 25 years, and once the warranty expires, panels will still produce energy, albeit not at their advertised peak. Solar installations in the United States didn’t really take off until 2010. Any influx of panels needing replaced today happens after severe weather events or other accidents.10 
 
Where are those damaged panels going now? With no dedicated national program or requirement to safely dispose of solar panels, some unfortunately find their way to landfills. If the system owner is

green-minded and has the money, panels may get shipped to a recycling facility. In some cases, they may be stored until a practical recycling program is established.11 

The broader U.S. industry is just beginning to catch on, and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a trade group representing solar power companies and photovoltaic manufacturers, recently established a PV Recycling Working Group to train and equip commercial recycling companies to understand what’s in manufacturers’ products and how to break them down.12   

Although there’s nothing yet mandated at a national level, a few states are trying to get the ball moving. In July 2017, Washington became the first state to pass a solar stewardship bill (ESSB 5939), requiring manufacturers selling solar products into the state to have end-of-life recycling programs for their own products. Manufacturers that do not provide a recycling program or outline will not be able to sell solar modules into the state after Jan. 1, 2021. Final plans are still being decided.13 See the Washington State Department of Ecology’s website for more details. 

It will be interesting to see how and whether panel manufacturers use recyclability and recycling programs to differentiate themselves, and whether economics, industry standards or government regulation are the most prominent drivers. 

If you’re curious to read up on the issue, check out this recent webinar hosted by the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA). And if you want to learn about of battery recycling, this piece from Bloomberg provides projections for this market and references some of the regulatory drivers which are expected to influence the market for battery reuse and recycling moving forward. 

That’s all for now. Until next time!