Rapidly increasing solar photovoltaic (PV) installations have led to environmental and supply chain concerns. The United States relies on imports of raw materials for solar module manufacturing and imports of PV cells and modules to meet domestic demand. As PV demand increases, so will the need to mine valuable materials—a motivation for domestic reuse and recycling.
Moreover, decommissioned PV modules could total 1 million tons of waste in the United States by 2030, or 1% of the world’s e-waste. This presents not only waste management concerns but also opportunities for materials recovery and secondary markets.
Responsible and cost-effective management of PV system hardware is an important business and environmental consideration. Repair, reuse, or recovery of this equipment would reduce negative environmental impacts, reduce resource constraints, and stimulate U.S. economic growth.
A team of NREL researchers has been leading ongoing analysis of how to manage retiring PV modules in support of the laboratory’s vision of a circular economy for energy materials. The team conducted legal- and literature-based research and interviewed solar industry stakeholders, regulators, and policymakers. They published a series of NREL technical reports, narrowing in on options and opportunities for PV equipment reuse and recycling.
Technical, Economic, and Regulatory Factors for a PV Circular Economy
Today, there is little incentive for private industry to invest in PV recycling, repair, or reuse due to current market conditions and regulatory barriers. In the United States, only one manufacturer has implemented a “takeback” program to reuse or recycle retired PV modules. Although there are a growing number of U.S. third-party recyclers that accept PV modules, most companies only recover bulk material and leave behind high-value materials such as silver, copper, and silicon—according to one report in the study.
In the future, the U.S. industry for recovered PV materials from modules alone could total $60 million by 2030 or $2 billion by 2050. PV equipment recycling could increase supply chain stability and resource security, decrease manufacturing costs, enhance a company’s green reputation, provide new revenue streams, add tax benefits, and create American jobs.
To help spur private investment in the early stages of new and expanded PV market opportunities, the analysts recommend government-funded R&D and analysis to help relieve some of the market and regulatory uncertainty associated with the reuse and end-of-life PV options. R&D could focus on designing PV modules to be more easily repaired, reused, or recycled, as well as on the associated cost-effective services and business models.