Emilie Oxel O’Leary is the owner and CEO of Green Clean Solar. Her career and influence in the solar industry started when she built and sold one of the top mechanical solar installation companies in the U.S., which served major brands like Amazon, L’Oreal, Target, Perry Ellis and Blue Cross Blue Shield. O’Leary is now a leader in helping the solar industry become more full-circle sustainable by implementing better waste management practices for commercial, industrial and utility solar.
O’Leary shares the trajectory of a solar circular economy and the state of emerging solutions to solar installation waste as we head full-swing into the renewable energy transition.
Emmanuel Sullivan: What caused you to refocus from mechanical solar installation to solving solar waste?
Emilie Oxel O’Leary: Everything I have worked for in the past eight years in solar has led me to this moment. I started this business because I saw a HUGE problem in our industry – with zero solutions – when it came to trash while building solar projects.
Everything was being placed in dumpsters and hauled to the landfill. Here we are building this magnificent energy producing system, then turning around and filling our precious earth with all the trash leftover from the site. And it’s not just broken panels; it’s cardboard, wood crates, plastic, glass, metals, wires, you name it. I began to see a great need for us as an industry to start dealing with our solar site waste and improve solar energy installation sustainability, full circle.
Solar energy is impressive; it’s a cost-effective way to replace fossil fuel dependency and reduce carbon emissions, which is why we need more solar projects! But as some panels naturally break during shipment and others reach their end-of-life, there are materials that deserve reclamation in the aftermarket. Many of these broken and aged panels will be replaced ahead of their end-of-life estimations. By 2050, we’re expected to reach about 88 million tons of solar panel waste, and planning now for this future is imperative.
Manufacturer responsibility is moving in the direction of helping installation companies, EPCs, utilities and owners take charge of their broken and end-of-life panels. Especially now as environmental, sustainability and governance (ESG) accountability tightens on reporting scope emissions, solar site waste management and the old model of landfilling site waste are becoming a thing of the past.
There are global market pressures to deal with solar waste and, as long as we’re a growing industry, the pressures will continue to [increase] until we’ve implemented comprehensive solutions. Waste-conscious practices on solar sites will become standard operating procedures for those who wish to remain competitive in the industry.
ES: How big is the solar waste issue in the U.S. and are there models we can adopt?
EOO: End-of-life PV recycling systems and management have only just emerged and are still not fully mature in North America, so the problem is pretty big and definitely will grow. In the first-ever PV waste volume projections delivered by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme (IEA-PVPS), it was estimated that recycling and refurbishing solar PV panels at the end of their life could recover 78 million tons of raw material by 2050 worldwide. The value of these materials alone, not including other recovered items from a solar installation site, exceeds $15 billion.
Once a site is commissioned, the current industry standard in the U.S. is to send most, if not all, waste materials to landfills, [which is] unnecessary. The waste management issues are not just about the steep volume of solar panels, but the incredible heaps of other waste materials required for shipping, such as crates, cardboard, bolts and plastics, all of which currently have active recycling streams that are largely underutilized, if they are used at all.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) Photovoltaics released an End-of-Life Action Plan this year aimed to understand the recycling process of solar PV and to dramatically reduce costs.
Since 2012, the European Union has a system worth modeling for end-of-life solar panels, which comes under the scope of the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). Regulations require 85 percent collection and 80 percent recycling of the materials used in PV panels. The policy uses a fund or tax incentive for the repair, reuse or refurbishment of panels. There are also right-to-repair laws and policies to minimize new fossil fuel infrastructures. These measures have significantly helped increase PV recycling rates and lower costs by creating a profitable solar recycling market.
Others who are doing things the right way are manufacturers who partner with waste management providers that can give their customers solutions to end-of-life PVs and other waste generated during large installs. This helps the manufacturers provide supportive services to their clients and helps streamline the waste process for installers.
ES: How does ESG reporting play into solar waste management?
EOO: Sustainable financing is becoming remarkably more astute. ESG reporting is taking business accountability to elevated transparency levels. Investors are becoming less interested in sustainable reporting fluff and demanding measurable impact reporting with verified renewable energy and waste metrics.
Since the majority of PV projects require some degree of investor capital, utilities and developers will have to meet waste diversion requirements sooner rather than later. Project-wide sustainability disclosure as a requirement will become an increasing trend until it is either the norm or the law.
Both PV installation and PV waste recycling efforts lower carbon emissions; these can be sorted into scope emissions that have become a reporting requirement for publicly traded companies.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced its efforts to enhance climate and ESG transparency for investors by instating a 22-person Task Force Division. The SEC announcement solidified a new enforcement path for ESG reporting and corporate sustainability goals, as they will no longer be left to ideals but require action backed by proof. Developers will soon take heed to the ESG reporting model as solar project waste will become a full scope issue that needs tending to both in reports and on the ground.
ES: Are manufacturers taking responsibility for solar panel end-of-life management?
EOO: Yes, competitive manufacturers are starting to implement end-of-life management support because they want to see their customers succeed, and also their market share expands with larger installation projects and utilities that are taking measures to incorporate waste reduction efforts on solar project sites. Manufacturers currently have an opportunity to be proactive about recycling measures. They can partner with companies who will deliver solar panels, refurbishing, recycling and cleanup efforts, educate the client on why end-of-life management for panels is an important topic, and add this data to their sustainability report to share efforts.
Transparency is the big shift here. The theme is really about delivering a full scope plan for the life of panels, pushing company growth, and allowing customers to connect with the true value of a company’s offerings. ESGs are just the start for delivering transparency via verifiable metrics to stakeholders.
The benefits for solar manufacturers adopting a program or partnering with a leader in solar waste include:
- Improved value-add from the customer perspective
- Taking part now helps customers to perceive the manufacturer as a leader
- It helps customers who want to do the right thing
- It can be streamlined as an official branded program
- Supports ESG goals for waste and recycling efforts
ES: What are the challenges you’re seeing for site managers to incorporate waste diversion efforts on solar installations?
EOO: What’s really been the status quo is that waste is an afterthought, something you deal with at the end of a project. Most often, it hasn’t been budgeted in, and it really should be, so that better decisions can be made rather than landfilling everything just to make it disappear.
There’s also a tremendous amount of waste on larger projects, and many project managers can easily get overwhelmed by the volume and just want to dump it all. What ends up happening is there’s no plan for waste diversion to occur, there’s been little support, and PV panel recycling prices have been incredibly high. So there hasn’t been much incentive to practice recycling and waste diversion.
Now, there’s really no excuse to do things the old way. Pricing is more competitive, partners are there to help handle multiple materials, and support from dedicated teams is available.
ES: What role will solar waste diversion play in the future of renewable energy?
EOO: A large amount of waste is anticipated from the solar industry as we head into the early 2030s; however, a new market is emerging for handling this waste in responsible ways. We will see the implementation of programs across solar manufacturing companies to help handle residential, commercial and utility solar panel waste in the near future. Waste diversion is an integral part of our future in the transition to renewable energy, as it reduces unnecessary waste and unnecessary carbon emissions and helps recover important resources that can be reused, refurbished or made into new solar panels.
For more information about Green Clean Solar, visit www.greenclean-solar.com.
The CEO of U.S. Energy Media, Emmanuel Sullivan is a technical writer who has built up his profile in the oil and gas industry. He lives and works in Houston, where he publishes Oilman and Oilwoman on a bimonthly basis, and Energies quarterly, distributing the magazine to energy thought leaders and professionals throughout the United States and around the world. At a time when technology is rapidly changing, he provides an invaluable service to oil & gas, and renewable energy executives, engineers, and managers, offering them both broad and specific looks at the topics that affect their livelihoods. Sullivan earned his BA in Communications at Thomas Edison State University and his MA in Professional Writing at Chatham University.