North Carolina is Home to a New Solar Recycling Plant

workers running solar panels through a recycling machine

(Credit: SPR)

by | Mar 18, 2024

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The Carolinas boast tens of millions of solar panels, each with a lifespan of 20 to 30 years. But what happens when these panels reach the end of their useful life? Traditionally, they end up in landfills, contributing billions of pounds of waste and posing environmental risks. North Carolina-based, Powerhouse Recycling is on a path to change all of this.

Monumental Waste

By 2030, the United States is expected to have as much as one million total tons of solar panel waste, and that number is expected to jump to 10 million total tons by 2050, according to a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Recycling one solar panel can cost between $15 to $45, while disposal in a non-hazardous waste landfill costs around $1, and disposal in a hazardous waste landfill costs around $52. Researchers project that 40% of all solar panels could be reused and recycled using subsidies equal to $18 per panel for 12 years.

On October 23, 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced plans for a new regulatory initiative aimed at enhancing the recycling and handling of end-of-life solar panels and lithium batteries. The EPA is currently in the process of crafting a proposed rule that would integrate solar panels into the universal waste regulations and establish customized universal waste standards specifically for lithium batteries.

A New Player in the Solar Recycling Game

Powerhouse Recycling, an electronics waste company, embarked on a mission in 2018 to tackle the challenge of solar panel disposal. Their endeavor culminated in the launch of (SPR) in 2023, marking the first facility on the East Coast dedicated to recycling nearly the entire solar panel.

CEO Brett Henderson envisioned a solution that not only mitigated environmental impact but also tapped into the economic potential of recycling. The facility has quickly garnered attention nationwide, with panels arriving from as far as California and New York, though the bulk comes from local partners in the Carolinas.

In its inaugural year, SPR processed around 68,000 panels, and projections for this year indicate an increase to over 150,000 panels. While currently handling panels damaged during storms or installation, the facility anticipates a surge in demand as aging solar installations reach retirement age.

A dedicated machine was engineered to disassemble the panel and segregate its components. The machine captures an image of the panel, allowing its artificial intelligence (AI) to adjust to its distinct features. Then, the device removes the junction box and separates the aluminum frame and glass from the cells. The remaining components are then shredded and separated, resulting in recyclable materials such as plastic, silicon, copper, and glass.

According to Garrett Powell, the director of sourcing and client services at SPR, the key lies in these meticulous separation processes, which render the resources ready for reuse. While materials like copper, aluminum, and glass already boast established markets, silicon presents a newer challenge.

Challenges Ahead

Despite the promising prospects, Henderson admits that cost remains a significant barrier to widespread panel recycling. Transportation costs, especially for the bulky and heavy panels, pose logistical challenges. To address this, SPR plans to establish additional facilities in Texas and the northeastern United States, aiming to reduce transportation distances.

Policy also plays a crucial role in incentivizing recycling over landfill disposal. While North Carolina currently lacks mandates for panel recycling, recent legislation requires decommissioning plans for large-scale solar projects, signaling a shift towards sustainable disposal practices.

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