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How do you make an old solar panel disappear?
That’s not a parlor trick — it’s an increasingly crucial question to answer now that solar is the largest category of new power-plant construction in the U.S.
Currently, industrial solar-recycling capacity is nowhere near capable of handling the volume of panels that need to be disposed of. Right now, almost all the panels that stop working in the U.S. go to landfills, a dirty little secret of the clean energy industry. But it is technically possible to take apart old panels and use the materials to make new ones. If you don’t believe that, take a look for yourself in this video.
You’ll get a glimpse into the factory in Odessa, Texas that startup Solarcycle built to test out its process for solar-panel recycling. The company launched last year with a $6.6 million fundraise and the goal to recover 95 percent of the valuable materials in solar modules.
“There’s no real industrial-scale recycling process for solar. We came to the conclusion that we needed to develop one,” co-founder and CEO Suvi Sharma told Canary Media last year. “What inspired our investors is that we have a vision for a centralized gigafactory to process millions of panels. Nobody else is operating at that scale.”
Solarcycle isn’t at gigafactory scale just yet; last year, Sharma said it was building the capacity to recycle 300,000 panels annually by the end of 2022.
But it did raise another $30 million in a Series A investment announced last Wednesday. Fifth Wall, an investment firm focused on climate-proofing the built environment, led the round, which also includes infrastructure financing.
With that funding, Solarcycle expects to expand its capacity to recycle 1 million solar panels annually by the close of this year. A “vertically integrated, advanced recycling factory” will follow in 2024, expanding capacity to “millions of panels.”
Solarcycle has already established partnerships with some of the biggest owners of solar panels, including Sunrun, the nation’s largest rooftop-solar installer. Another partner, Silicon Ranch, develops and owns solar projects around the country, and has pioneered a regenerative approach that involves cultivating the land and ensuring panels get recycled at the end of service.
Silicon Ranch sent a batch of busted old panels to Solarcycle recently and filmed what happened next for the video embedded above. You won’t glean any trade secrets, but you can see the panels breaking down and returning to their constituent parts, such as silicon, aluminum, glass, silver, and copper. Solarcycle then sells these materials to manufacturers.
If solar recyclers rise to the occasion, they could help achieve a number of things at once: limiting the ecological burden of landfill waste produced by “clean” energy; reducing the carbon emissions required to make new solar panels; expanding the supply of ingredients for domestic solar manufacturing; and creating a whole new set of jobs and factory sites in service to the broader solar juggernaut.
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