First Solar prevents e-waste by creating new solar panels from old ones

Though the global surge in solar power is good news for our green energy transition, it also means that in the coming years we will face an enormous amount of e-waste. In fact, it’s estimated that the first wave of solar panels will generate as much as 8 million metric tons of e-waste by 2030. 

This is because most manufacturers of solar panels don’t account for what happens to the technology when it wears out — meaning that most of it skips recycling facilities and goes straight to landfill. That, however, is not the case for First Solar, a manufacturer that has integrated circularity within the design of its solar panels.

Equipped with custom e-waste processing technology, the company disassembles and recycles old panels at a recycling plant in Ohio, recovering 90 percent of the materials inside.

“Our aim for solar is to help our customers decouple their economic growth from negative environmental impacts,” says Andreas Wade, who leads the company’s global sustainability efforts. “So it is kind of a mandatory point for us to address the renewable-energy-circular-economy nexus today and not 20 years from now.”

As Wade explains, by recycling materials, the total environmental footprint of each panel shrinks significantly. In fact, if 95 percent of the valuable semiconductor material can be recovered and put back in a panel, in repeated cycles, the original material could stay in use as long as 1,200 years.

While such sustainability efforts are currently not common practice for other solar panel manufacturers, Wade is optimistic that as the industry progresses, recycling options are also likely to get a boost — paving the way for a truly circular economy for renewable energy.

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