The provincial government is giving Alberta’s recycling management authority more time to figure out how to reuse and recycle solar panels.
Solar power fans from across Alberta tuned into a free online talk on solar panel reuse and recycling by Ed Gugenheimer Feb. 8 during the 2023 Solar Alberta Solar Show.
Gugenheimer is the CEO of the Alberta Recycling Management Authority (ARMA), which runs Alberta’s oil, paint, tire, and electronics recycling programs.
In May 2020, the provincial government approved a two-year $43 million pilot to expand ARMA’s electronics recycling program to include, among other items, solar panels.
The pilot was originally supposed to end Dec. 31, 2022, but the province has since extended it to March 31, 2024, Gugenheimer said. The extension would give ARMA more time to develop standards for recycling and reusing solar panels.
“We want to make sure they don’t end up in the landfill,” he said.
Solar power and wind power have taken off in Alberta, with some 3,800 megawatts now on the grid and another 1,800 MW on the way, Gugenheimer said. That’s led some landowners to worry about the cost to clean up old solar and wind installations, with some fearing they will end up like the scores of abandoned oil wells now littering the province.
The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that Canada will have about 800,000 tonnes of solar panel waste on hand by 2050, Gugenheimer said.
“Collectively, we really haven’t figured out what to do with those panels at the end of life.”
Most solar panels in the U.S. go straight to the landfill because it costs about $1,500 a tonne to recycle them but $50 a tonne to dump them, said Meng Tao, a professor of electrical engineering at Arizona State University who studies solar panel recycling and was not part of Gugenheimer’s talk. That’s a problem, as solar panels contain toxic metals such as lead which should not end up in the dump.
About 90 per cent of a solar panel is made of recyclable materials such as plastic, glass, and metal, Gugenheimer said.
Tao said solar panels are difficult to recycle because they are made of wafer-thin layers of silicon, glass, and metal all glued together which can’t be separated without complex chemical processes. Most sites simply shred them, meaning they recover about $2 of the $20 worth of materials in each module.
Solar panels are durable enough to last decades, so they aren’t easy to dismantle, Gugenheimer said. That long lifespan makes it tough to set recycling fees for them — it’s a challenge to predict recycling costs three years from now, let alone 20.
Gugenheimer said ARMA has collected about 1,900 solar panels through its pilot so far and recycled 1,200 of them at a facility in Ohio. They were now working on testing standards and protocols to see if the other panels could be reused to power off-grid facilities.
While Alberta does not currently have enough panels on hand to justify the cost of local recycling, Gugenheimer said ARMA hoped to fix that by collecting panels from throughout western Canada.
“The lion’s share of the cost with recycling these (panels) was actually just transportation,” he said, so it would make economic sense to build a solar panel recycling plant in Alberta.
Tao said governments should use extended producer responsibility legislation to force manufacturers to make solar panels that could be easily recycled. Some European nations already have such rules in place.
Gugenheimer encouraged Albertans to keep sending in their solar panels, and hoped the province would agree to make solar panels a permanent part of Alberta’s electronic recycling program.
Gugenheimer’s talk will be posted to solaralberta.ca in the coming months.
Visit armaepilot.com for details on the pilot.