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Energy Efficiency

The Solar System: Recycling Renewables in Ohio

Last year, First Solar, an American-based solar panel company, expanded their manufacturing plant in Perrysburg, Ohio, and built a new transparent conductive oxide (TCO) coated glass factory in Troy Township. Through this $1 billion total investmentment in Ohio, they directly created 500 sustainable jobs and became the largest solar manufacturer in the western hemisphere. Tymen de Jong, Chief Operating Officer of First Solar, said in a release: “We’re incredibly proud of what we have achieved, and we are proud to have achieved it in Northwestern Ohio, the technological home of American solar.” As manufacturing wraps up at the Troy Township glass factory, the factory in Perrysburg is hard at work giving old, worn out solar panels new life through advanced recycling.

In the solar industry, recycling materials isn’t exactly common. Namely, the initial cost of transportation of reintegrating worn-out panels is too high for the majority of small solar manufacturers to burden. First Solar, however, understands that over time the cost of disposing of solar panels will increase, so developing these recycling procedures now will save their customers money in the long term. “As the availability of sites and land for disposal become scarcer, and regulatory disposal requirements become more burdensome for all PV technologies, disposal costs will likely increase above costs for recycling,” First Solar reports. This is part of the reason why First Solar created the first comprehensive, global solar recycling program the world had ever seen in 2005. Currently, all of their manufacturing facilities are capable of recycling over 90% of the semiconductor material and roughly 90% of the glass in their solar panels.

A worker in First Solar’s Ohio manufacturing facility. Photo Courtesy of First Solar

With more solar panels being installed every day, it’s important that we start thinking about what we will do with them when they reach the end of their 25+ year life span. Recycling them will not only prevent dangerous metals like cadmium and lead from entering landfills, it will also reduce the cost of production over time. This reality helps prove that a positive environmental impact isn’t always bad for business. “Our aim for solar is to help our customers decouple their economic growth from negative environmental impacts,” Andreas Wade, First Solar’s Head of Global Sustainability told Fast Company. “So it is kind of a mandatory point for us to address the renewable-energy-circular-economy nexus today and not 20 years from now.” 

E-waste, or the trash of the technology industry, is a growing concern for many companies, but by developing the recycling technology today, First Solar avoids a break in the supply chain further down the line. 

The production line at First Solar’s Ohio manufacturing plant. Photo Courtesy of First Solar

With a lifespan of over 25 years, sometimes lasting as long as 30 and even 40 years, the solar panels we install today will still be around tomorrow, but as solar farms grow across the country, it’s important to have circular production systems that ensure nothing goes to waste further down the line. According to First Solar’s 2020 Sustainability Report, “The remainder of the recycled module scrap (approximately 5-10%) which cannot be used in secondary raw materials is handled using other responsible waste treatment and disposal techniques. One kilogram of First Solar’s semiconductor material can be recycled 41 times over, which translates into a use time of more than 1,200 years. Since 2018, First Solar’s routinely operated recycling plants generate zero wastewater discharge. Instead, the wastewater is recycled and converted into freshwater for reuse in the recycling process.”

Installing Solar Panels. Photo Courtesy of First Solar

In light of the International Energy Agency’s 2020 report finding solar energy as the cheapest source of electricity in history, more countries, businesses, and homes will be relying on solar installations to keep the lights on. “I see solar becoming the new king of the world’s electricity markets. Based on today’s policy settings, it is on track to set new records for deployment every year after 2022,”  Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director, said in a press release. As the demand for solar increases, so too will the need to dispose of older installations in a cost-effective, environmentally-friendly manner, and good, old American ingenuity is powering the solar recycling revolution of tomorrow.

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