Some time ago, on behalf of SunEdison, I served on the communications committee of Solar Energy Industries Association. At that time, pretty early in solar’s PPA market development, we informally discussed questions around the impact and lifecycle of solar panels. The industry knew about the upcoming wave of panels that would “age” out of efficient generation, and we asked what the implications for the industry and environment would be from a communications point of view. We were a bit ahead of our time.

The questions are even more important today because PV solar panels, which have a lifespan of about 25 years, are aging out. This has not escaped notice of environmental advocacy media outlet Grist, which recently ran a piece titled “Solar panels are starting to die. What will we do with megatons of toxic trash?” The author put it simply: “Solar e-waste glut is coming.”

By 2050, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projects up to 78 million metric tons of solar panels will have reached the end of their life and that the world will be generating about 6 million metric tons of new solar e-waste annually. Solar panels are mostly glass and metal, both of which are easily recyclable materials, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

However, the overall US recycling market is broken. Even recycling glass is an issue, due to single-stream recycling widely used in the US. PV modules cannot be recycled in the regular glass recycling because of the impurities from the materials embedded within the glass. Some of these materials have value, while others, such as lead and cadmium, are considered toxic and require special handling.

Questions the Industry Will Face

These challenges will bring a host of questions the industry will need to address, including:

  • What infrastructure is needed to make this work?
  • What are the costs?
  • What’s the market for second-life (recycled) materials?
  • What incentives, if any, are needed to make a market work?
  • What happens if we (the U.S.) doesn’t support policy and market positions to make recycling of solar modules and components a fiscally viable reality?

While the answers and advancements must come from the business unit, communicators need to be involved in the process, even before all the solutions are in place. Why? For transparency and because communicating effort and progress on the issues ahead is better than remaining silent and letting others own the story.

Efforts in Place

The technology exists to recycle PV modules. A first-of-its-kind plant operated by Veolia is running in the Bouches-du-Rhône region of France. In the U.S., SEIA has created a PV recycling working group and listed preferred recycling partners. First Solar’s recent announcement on solar module recycling got important coverage, including this Fast Company article, which noted:

“At a recycling plant in Ohio, next to the company’s manufacturing facility, First Solar uses custom technology to disassemble and recycle old panels, recovering 90% of the materials inside. It runs similar recycling systems in Germany and Malaysia.”

Consider what’s happening in France, where 5,000 tons of solar modules were collected for recycling in 2019. According to an article in PV Magazine, that’s 94.7% recovery rate of crystalline silicon-based PV modules. EU regulations require 85% collection and 80% recycling of the materials used in PV panels under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, which was extended to solar products in 2012.

Solar Communicators Can Look to Consumer Electronics Industry

For communicators in the solar energy field, the dual issues of solar panel lifecycle and responsible disposal are not going away. As panels age out and come offline, the U.S. solar industry will need to be proactive in communicating how it is addressing end-of-life management in responsible and sustainable ways.

Communicators in the industry should review how today’s electronics industry has addressed (and continues to address) e-waste. One of the industry’s key associations has worked the issue constantly, developing model legislation, lobbying and educating government agencies at all levels, convening companies that see ewaste as a material risk, and producing detailed reports on the efforts and overall increases in recycling of e-waste.

Strong, proactive communications and public affairs campaigns on the sustainability of solar panels, life cycle management and what is needed for the market to meet the challenges will be key in driving the conversation and securing supportive federal, state and municipal polices in 2021 and beyond.

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RH Strategic is a Seattle and D.C.-based communications firm with a nationwide presence and additional global reach via membership in the Worldcom Public Relations Group. We provide strategic public relations for innovators in the technology, government, healthcare and energy markets.