PV Recycling

Responding to criticism about potential toxic waste generated during the manufacture of PV modules, the U.S. solar industry is taking steps to stay as clean and green as possible, launching initiatives aimed at ensuring manufacturer responsibility throughout the supply chain.

Over the past year, the industry has come under attack from national news outlets—the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, among others. A report released earlier this year by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) fueled the fire. Known for advocating safety and manufacturer responsibility in the high-tech industries, the SVTC takes particular offense with the low wages and lax environmental policies in countries where some PV modules are manufactured—namely China, where there have been reports of PV manufacturing facilities illegally dumping chemical byproducts of silicon production.

For now, a number of U.s. manufacturers with european operations are finding the support and resources they need through PV Cycle, a voluntary take-back and recycling program for end-of-life modules in europe.

On the disposal side, the SVTC urges the solar industry to address potential risks immediately, or warns that we'll risk repeating the mistakes made by the microelectronics industry, which waited decades before putting recycling programs in place and also generates millions of tons of toxic "e-waste" annually in the United States. The report draws parallels between the two industries, asserting that silicon-based PV production involves many of the same materials used in microelectronics production and therefore presents many of the same hazards.

The solar industry, as the report acknowledges, still has a window of opportunity to avert the problem. Because PV modules can last more than 30 years and the U.S. solar industry is still relatively young, having experienced its most substantial growth over the last decade, the volume of waste generated by retired modules each year is low. By about 2020, however, the systems of recent years may be ready to face disposal.

Several companies are already bracing for the future by developing recycling plans and programs. SolarWorld has established a new recycling facility in Germany. There, retired modules are dismantled piece by piece, and the materials, including silicon wafers, are recovered for recycling or reuse


in new PV modules. The company plans to open a domestic facility down the line, but for now, retired modules are shipped by container from its U.S. headquarters in Oregon to Germany.

First Solar Inc., an Arizona-based manufacturer of thin-film PV laminates, assumes all costs associated with collecting and recycling its retired modules. The company not only has recycling operations at each of its manufacturing facilities in the United States and abroad, but also set up an independent trust to support recycling and disposing of its modules—even if the company should cease to exist.

Though the SVTC report raised questions about the darker side of the PV industry, some good has come from the bad publicity. Its message of cradle-to-cradle product stewardship and life-cycle thinking is widely supported within the industry and has prompted an industry-wide discussion about waste- disposal practices.

Leading the conversation is the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a national trade organization based in Washington, D.C. In March, the SEIA board established a committee to address the environmental, health, and safety implications of solar products. The committee—comprised of representatives from PV manufacturers, including First Solar, SolarWorld, SunPower, SunTech, and Sharp—is charged with developing the first large-scale recycling initiative in the United States.

Find out what all the buzz is about. Download Toward a Just and sustainable solar energy Industry at the web site for the silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

"Our goal is to stay ahead of the curve. We're in a favorable position in that we're still a very young industry and we have some time, but it's important that we take a leadership role now so we can deal with any current issues and have the best practices in place when the time comes," says Monique Hanis, SEIA spokesperson.

For now, a number of U.S. manufacturers with European operations are finding the support and resources they need through PV Cycle, a voluntary take-back and recycling program for end-of-life modules in Europe.

"What everyone must realize is that virtually every product is made with chemicals, and that the solar industry inn+i o

is a community of professionals who genuinely care about environmental impact and producing a green product. That's why we all got into this business in the first place," says Lisa Kruger, First Solar's vice president of sustainable development.

"Rest assured," Kruger adds, "that the entire industry is committed to doing what it takes to create a climate change solution for today that does not impose a waste management issue of tomorrow."

—Kelly Davidson

Capitol Carbon Cleanup

For all its talk of harnessing the power of the wind, capturing the sun, and using water to meet our nation's energy needs, one fossil-fuel dinosaur sits just steps from Congress: the Capitol Power Plant.

The plant is the primary source of air pollution in the District of Columbia, but that is about to change. In an effort to clean up Congress's image and the District's air quality, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have announced that the plant will no longer burn coal to heat the Capitol's many buildings and water supply, but will start using natural gas, a cleaner-burning fuel. Although change won't come cheap—the switch will cost $7 million, according to Stephen Ayers, the acting architect of the Capitol—it does signal a growing governmental consciousness to address global warming issues here at home.

Renewable Lawns

Buying that new mower next season might just come with a double dose of incentive: one for your pocketbook and one for the environment. If Vermont Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Vermont Representative Peter Welch can pass their latest bill, consumers will get a 25% tax credit (up to $1,000) when they purchase cleaner-fueled lawn, garden, and forestry power equipment.

Products that will quality for the 25% tax credit include those that are powered by a motor drawing current from solar, electricity, or rechargeable or replacement batteries; have a hybrid-electric drivetrain and/or cutting system powered by a generator or electrical storage device combined with a small engine; or are powered by renewable power sources and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The goal of the bill is to reduce dependence on foreign oil, while cultivating an incentive for consumers to buy clean, renewably powered equipment for their businesses and homes.

Lone Star State Landfill Goes Solar

What can you do with a full landfill? After decades of taking the community's refuse, the 680-acre Tessman Road Landfill in San Antonio, Texas, is putting part of its site to use to make energy. A flexible photovoltaic cover has transformed 5.6 acres of the landfill's south-facing slope into a solar farm. Republic Services Inc., the Arizona-based company that owns the landfill, worked with United Solar Ovonic of Michigan to develop the first-of-its-kind solar-electric landfill cap—more than 1,000 Uni-Solar flexible solar strips adhered to the synthetic geomembrane liner used to cover and close the landfill when it reaches capacity.

The new solar-electric cover complements the landfill's biogas-to-energy system, which has been in operation since 2002. Republic and CPS Energy, the local utility, will study and document the results of this solar demonstration project to determine the feasibility of using the solar-electric cover on other landfills.

With more than 300 days of sunshine in San Antonio per year, Republic estimates that the energy produced by the PV and biogas systems will create enough energy to power 5,500 area homes. The company's research suggests that as many as 2,350 acres of its 213 landfills nationwide could be fitted with solar-electric covers, generating enough solar energy to power up to 47,000 homes.

Several landfills nationwide are equipped with solar-electric systems, with countless others slated for future installations. Tessman is the only one currently utilizing the Uni-Solar flexible landfill cap.

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David Hughes


David Hughes


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