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Start at the End: Building for the Solar Circular Economy

Jan 27, 2022

Decommissioned solar photovoltaic (PV) panels could add up to 1 million tons of waste in the U.S. by 2030 (GreenBiz). Turning circularity challenges into opportunities sits, to a great degree, in the hands of solar O&M firms who will be charged with recycling large volumes of end-of-life modules. Amanda Bybee, CEO of Amicus O&M Cooperative and volunteer leader at SolarRecycle.org, sits in a unique position at the crossroads of O&M and recycling efforts. In episode 6 of Power Players by Origis, Bybee joins Origis Services Managing Director Michael Eyman to discuss why and how the future of solar recycling starts today.

MEET THE PLAYERS

Amanda Bybee has worked in the solar industry since 2003. Over the course of her career, she has helped launch several cooperatives: employee-owned cooperative Namasté Solar, purchasing cooperative Amicus Solar, financial cooperative Clean Energy Credit Union, and shared-services cooperative Amicus O&M Cooperative. In recent years, she has contributed time and energy to several passion projects, including a Women’s Speakers Bureau with WRISE, an informational website on how to recycle solar equipment at www.SolarRecycle.org, and an industry coalition on diversity, equity, and inclusion called Renewables Forward.

Michael Eyman is managing director of Origis Services, a best-in-class provider of Operations and Maintenance (O&M) and Asset Management Services for owners of large-scale solar facilities, portfolios, energy storage, and other renewable assets.

THINK OF THE END AT THE BEGINNING

To rise to the challenge of solar waste, asset owners must consider the asset’s end of life from the beginning and expect financiers, engineers, and developers to do the same.

For financiers, Bybee recommends a bitter pill to swallow: budgets that include decommissioning costs. Whether that expense comes from self-imposed industry standards or external regulation is yet to be determined but may be unavoidable in the future.

Engineers must consider how they design. Bybee explains: “[T]here’s a tension between building a product that’s built to last in the elements for 25 or 30 years with one that’s easy to take apart. Those two things are kind of at odds, right?” Designing components like J boxes and module films that are rugged but also cleanly disassembled is key to reducing landfill.

Finally, developers must continue to improve site design and construction practices to reduce decommissioning expenses. Many developers have adopted waste-reducing practices already—relying on pile driving instead of concrete bases, for example—but further progress is necessary to achieve full solar circularity.

ANTICIPATE WASTE WITH A MATERIALS LIST

Upcoming projects will benefit most from this new thinking, but what about existing assets? “[W]hat kind of end-of-life issues should owners be thinking about,” Eyman asks, “and what should they be doing throughout the mature period of that site to be ready for it?” Bybee has a simple approach: start with a materials list, and plan reuse and recycling early.

What materials can we cannibalize for other facilities? What materials can be recycled (or downcycled)? Some options are obvious and have preexisting secondary markets or recycling programs; others need a strategic plan. For example, metals from frames, piles, junction boxes, hardware, and wires can go to metal scrap and recycling facilities. Modules, inverters, and other electronics may be eligible for e-waste streams. Concrete and glass can be turned into cullet, sand, terrazzo, and other construction materials. But what about wood? A typical site may produce piles of wood waste in the form of cheap pallets. These pallets have short lifespans, degraded fiber quality, and chemicals that should not be burnt. Anticipating and planning for waste streams will help owners reduce costs and penalties in the future.

DON’T SOLVE ONE PROBLEM BY CREATING ANOTHER

Although Eyman and Bybee focus their discussion on solar, they acknowledge these issues are widespread, complex, and dependent on larger issues. What industry doesn’t use wooden pallets in some capacity? But both Eyman and Bybee agree we can learn much and perhaps avoid mistakes by looking at other industries.

“[T]here’s a lot of transferable knowledge that we can and should gain from others,” Bybee remarks. “There’s lots and lots of products in the world that have regulatory infrastructure that forces you to think about it upfront. When you buy a can of paint, there’s a fee on your receipt for recycling that in the future, mattresses, tires. . . . When you drill a new natural gas well today, you have to escrow money for its ultimate decommissioning. That was put in place because there were, unfortunately, a lot of wells that weren’t kept responsibly and that caused environmental problems later on.”

By watching how other industries have addressed circularity, we may find the ideal: Solutions that don’t result in other secondary issues. “I think that this is something that we seem to have to relearn generation after generation as we continue coming up with new things,” says Bybee. This time round, we can close the loop faster.

CONCLUSION

We may not have the luxury to wait for a solution to PV waste, according to Bybee: “The thinking around that is that we have time, because the vast majority of that 100 gigawatts [of U.S. solar energy] has been installed in just the last five or six years, really. . . . I think, though, we also see some trends in manufacturing processes that make us wonder if we really have as much time as we thought. And so that’s a part of my urgency in advocating for these topics and making sure we’re talking about them today. What if we don’t have 25 years to figure this out? And what if we need to know the answer in 5 or 10? That means we need to be working on this really actively right now.”

Three Takeaways for Responsible Solar Development:

  1. Think of the End and the Beginning
  2. Anticipate Waste with a Materials List
  3. Don’t Solve One Problem by Creating Another

Thank you to recycling and O&M leader Amanda Bybee, as well as host Michael Eyman, for an engaging, holistic discussion on solar circularity.

RESOURCE LINKS

Solarrecycle.org website

2021 NREL Reports:

SEIA: National PV Recycling Program

EnergyBin Webinar: What’s really going on in the PV recycling sector

 

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