By Sarah Lozanova, Solar Writer
The United States now has enough installed solar energy capacity to power 17.7 million homes. Although this is fantastic for air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, it means there is a looming e-waste issue on the horizon. At some point, the photovoltaic panels will no longer generate enough energy. Is it possible to recycle solar panels when they have reached their end of life?
The design life of solar panels is 25 to 30 years. Over time, solar modules become less efficient in converting sunlight to electricity due to degradation. Most of the solar panels in the U.S. were installed in the last decade. The efficiency of the panels will decrease and need to be replaced. Broken solar panels are good candidates for a refurbishing program.
Currently, only a small fraction of solar panels are recycled. The lack of governmental policies, infrastructure, and foresight in the module design process makes solar panel recycling expensive and arduous. For solar energy to truly produce clean energy, we must recycle solar panels effectively.
What materials are in solar panels?
When exploring recyclability, it is helpful to consider the components that make up a solar photovoltaic (PV) panel. Silicon-based modules are comprised of glass, plastic, aluminum, and silicon. Unfortunately, they also contain trace toxic compounds, such as lead, which can leach into groundwater if not properly disposed of. Cadmium telluride (CdTe) is found in thin-film solar and is toxic and a carcinogen. Because thin-film currently constitutes less than 5% of the global module market, it is a smaller-scale concern.
How are solar panels recycled?
To recycle the modules, they must be disassembled to remove the glass and the metal components in the frames and junction boxes. Unfortunately, the remaining materials make a low-value product that is largely downcycled into low-value products. As a result, material recovery rates are often around 85%, and the demand for the recycled materials is low.
How can we improve solar panel recycling?
Extending the life of decommissioned solar modules through refurbishing is an appealing option when possible. Such initiatives create a secondary market for solar PV materials that can help keep prices down while reducing waste.
To achieve dramatic advancement in recycling initiatives’ value and recovery rates would require the direct reuse of materials in the frame, glass, tabbing, and solar cells. The copper, silver, and silicon also provide a valuable opportunity if they can be effectively recovered. For example, silicon could be recycled back into solar panels or the anodes of lithium-ion batteries.
If achieved, this could reduce waste while conserving energy and resources.
Where can I recycle solar panels?
Although the U.S. lacks a national network for solar panel recycling, there is a patchwork of recycling options. The Solar Energy Industries Association’s (SEIA’s) National PV Recycling Program has designated Preferred Recycling Partners that meet certain standards. Two solar manufacturers lead the way in their recycling efforts: First Solar and SunPower.
By Sarah Lozanova, Clean Energy Writer
Despite serving a valuable purpose to us all, tech companies have been criticized for years for their exorbitant energy consumption. Data centers are the backbone of the internet and keeping all that information just a click away requires a lot of electricity.
A transition to renewable sources is underway, which cloud users can encourage by choosing their online service providers that source clean energy.
The ‘Dirty Cloud’
Data centers use up to 3 percent of all U.S. electricity and the information technology sector is responsible for 7 percent of global electricity consumption. The term “dirty cloud” was even coined to refer to the coal and other high-emissions fuel sources that power cloud computing. Global internet traffic has tripled in the last four years and it is anticipated to triple again by 2022, according to the International Energy Association.
The IT sector isn’t keeping up with its rapid growth,” says Gary Cook, the senior corporate campaigner on the Climate & Energy for Greenpeace. “More companies are making renewable energy commitments but energy demand growth by the industry is outstripping their renewable energy growth. This is an urgent issue to address the use of fossil fuels given the climate crisis.”
Since 2009, Greenpeace has been putting pressure on some of the more polluting tech companies while praising greener ones. When examining the energy footprint of tech companies, some clearly lead the way in the corporate use of renewable energy deployment, energy transparency, advocacy, and energy efficiency innovations.
Greening the Cloud with Renewable Energy
By Sarah Lozanova, Solar Writer
Across the globe, corporations are helping to fuel the clean energy movement and are using solar energy to power their operations, providing consumers a choice to support solar when shopping.
Large U.S. corporations installed 326 megawatts of solar panels in 2017, and now more than 4,000 U.S. companies have installed solar energy systems, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Corporate investment in renewable energy is boosting solar energy deployment as companies work towards sustainability goals and cut operating expenses.
As the cost of solar energy falls, solar has become a cost-effective source of new power generation. Many of the solar-powered corporations consist of retailers and IT companies. Let’s examine some of the retailers that are leading the way in solar energy installations.
With more than 200 megawatts of total solar energy capacity or enough electricity to power 33,000 homes, Target is the leading retailer for solar energy capacity, and it installed a whopping 40 megawatts of capacity last year. With over 1,800 stores total, Target has a goal to have solar panels on 500 stores and distribution centers by 2020, and it is well on its way with 422 solar systems. In addition, Target has solar systems with battery storage at six locations in Hawaii.
By Sarah Lozanova
Corporate Sustainability Writer
With nearly 4,900 properties spanning 104 countries and territories, Hilton is one of the largest and fastest-growing hospitality companies in the world. The company has also launched numerous corporate responsibility initiatives that win trust and consumer confidence – benefiting employees, the environment and corporate earnings in the process. The hotelier demonstrates that sustainability improvements can result in both environmental victories and cost savings.
“Hilton has saved an estimated $751 million from water, waste, and energy-efficiency initiatives which have also resulted in a reduction of our carbon emissions by 23 percent in seven years,” said Judy Pines, director of sustainability and responsible sourcing at Hilton. “We use a corporate responsibility performance management platform called LightStay to measure environmental and operational performance metrics.”
The platform tracks ongoing progress, shares best practices among hotels, and highlights areas where properties can reduce their environmental impact through water-, waste- and energy-reduction projects. Hilton cut carbon emissions by 23 percent and decreased waste output by 29 percent in seven years. In 2016, the LightStay platform was recognized as Environment Leader’s 2016 Product of the Year.
By Sarah Lozanova, Corporate Sustainability Writer
Did you know that Americans use 50 billion plastic water bottles each year, with a recycling rate of only 23%? From an environmental standpoint, it brings up numerous concerns. Kicking our bottled water habit can conserve resources, but what are we going to do with the billions of plastic bottles that are recycled? How do we boost stubbornly low plastic bottle recycling rates?
Luckily, Patagonia has been looking at this issue for decades and has made considerable progress in turning plastic trash into polyester fabric for apparel. The company has found a way to actually upcycle plastic bottles, finding a good use for this waste stream by turning it into a higher value goods.
In 1993, Patagonia produced the first polyester fleece jacket from recycled bottles. It had a green tint, from green soda bottles. Now, manufacturing waste, plastic bottles, and worn out clothing is recycled into new apparel, literally closing the recycling loop. Patagonia's product line has expanded from fleece jackets to include 82 products with recycled polyester, including insulated pants, down jackets, and beanies.