ReMA Member Discusses Challenges and Opportunities for Solar Panel Reuse and Recycling

May 25, 2024, 07:30 AM
Content author:
Hannah Carvalho
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Being in the solar equipment distribution industry for the last 15 years means Ontility, the solar brand of TERREPOWER under BBB Industries, knows a thing or two about how to handle end-of-life solar panels.

The company purchases and sells new and sustainably manufactured PV modules and system components, supporting the residential, commercial, industrial, utility, and nonprofit markets. Ontility also provides solar project consulting, decommissioning and repowering services, and helps support the circular economy through sustainable manufacturing and responsible recycling.

“Our process begins by bringing the panels into our facility in Sparta, Tennessee. There, we inspect the modules to see what we can do to repair them,” said Peter Hutchings, Ontility’s business development manager. “If they are viable and repairable, they then go through a sustainable manufacturing process where we can repair everything from the junction box to the diodes and connectors.”

After an initial inspection, the panels are machine washed through an industrial washing machine and then flash tested to determine if the panel is performing well enough to justify repair or determine if recycling is the necessary option.

As this sector of the recycled materials industry continues to grow and expand, there are many challenges and opportunities for companies operating in this space. Here are a few that Ontility has encountered.

Second Life for Panels

Ontility’s philosophy is “repair and reuse first,” meaning the company’s goal is to extend the life of the panels themselves for as long as possible before ultimately breaking them down into their raw components to be reused in new construction.

“An immense amount of effort and resources go into harvesting these materials from the Earth in the first place, and we feel it is our responsibility to get as much mileage out of these materials as possible,” Hutchings said.

According to Hutchings, many of the solar panels that come offline are still high-quality and can operate efficiently. One reason this happens is when a project that used solar panels gets decommissioned after reaching its full life but the panels themselves are still operating efficiently. Companies may remove panels if there’s a problem with the structure housing the panels, such as a leaky roof, and choose not to add them back.

A site upgrade, or repower, is another reason why high-quality panels may get taken offline before reaching their full lifespan. Since solar power technology has advanced so much over the last 10 years, solar sites may upgrade their panels from 250-watt panels to 550 or 600-watt panels, even if the 250-watt panels are still in great condition.

“These panels could be used for agricultural projects or as replacement panels for homeowners,” Hutchings said. “Recycled glass has a variety of applications such as aggregate for roadway construction or fiber glass insulation. The goal is to increase the overall purity level of the glass coming off our recycling line so it can be up to the standards required to be introduced back into construction for new solar panels, which really helps tighten the loop on the solar circular economy.”

TERREPOWER Solar Sustainable Manufacturing Line

The Next Generation of Panels: Silicon vs Thin-Film

To recycle traditional, silicon-based PV panels, recyclers start by disassembling the product to separate aluminum and glass parts.

“If we determine that PV modules are non-operational or damaged beyond repair, then we recycle the end-of-life panels so the raw materials can be fed back into the circular economy,” Hutchings said. “About 90 to 95 percent of the panel can be recycled. We can separate all the raw materials including aluminum, glass, precious metals, plastic, and silicon.”

However, some of the newer generations of panels can be more difficult to recycle. The cadmium telluride compound that is used to construct thin-film panels makes it harder to find a downstream off-taker, but the material can be used in roadways and future thin-film panel production.

These thin-film modules use one of the following four technologies: cadmium telluride (CdTe), amorphous silicon (a-Si), copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS), or organic photovoltaic cells (OPV).

“The breakdown process is easy, but the real issue is the downstream, if the materials don’t have anywhere to go,” said Moises Aguirre director of business development at Ontility. “We want to see more people thinking outside the box about how to use these recycled materials.”

Prior to Q2 of 2024, Ontility partnered with third-party recyclers to support its customers. On April 1, the company’s in-house recycling line came online to begin servicing the majority of their customer’s recycling needs in-house.

“We are excited about bringing our recycling operations in-house as part of our full-service lifecycle solutions, as it helps close the circular economy loop with our sustainable manufacturing process,” Hutchings said. “Our recycling line will effectively separate the aluminum, glass, silicon, precious metals, and plastic components of the solar modules, which can then be offloaded to downstream partners for reuse and reintroduction into the market.”

Looking to the Future

“We foresee there being an ever-growing market for the repair and reuse the millions of megawatts of currently installed solar infrastructure that will inevitably come offline in the not-so-distant future,” Hutchings said. “The world is shifting to renewable and sustainable energy sources at a rapid rate, and we need to prepare as much as we can proactively to process the necessary equipment upgrades as they come down the line.”

He added that with technology developing at an exponential rate, repowers and decommissioning projects will continue to gain traction and there needs to be adequate infrastructure in place to accommodate the demand for services to keep these materials out of the landfill.

“We’re excited to see more collaboration between panel manufacturers and panel recyclers,” Hutchings said. “Certain counties in the U.S. are introducing policies requiring manufacturers to find a recycling solution before the panels are commissioned, so we’ve been in talks with a lot of manufacturers to help them find an end-of-life solution before the panels are installed.”


TERREPOWER Sparta Solar Sustainable Manufacturing Line
Photo Credit: TERREPOWER, a division of BBB Industries

TERREPOWER Sparta Solar Array
Photo Credit: TERREPOWER, a division of BBB Industries

Being in the solar equipment distribution industry for the last 15 years means Ontility, the...
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