In the first quarter 2023, U.S. solar energy installations increased 47 percent, as easing panel supplies alleviated industry gridlock and allowed many stalled projects to be completed and connected to the grid. The solar industry had its best first quarter ever, installing 6.1 gigawatts. Solar accounted for 54 percent of new U.S. electric generating capacity during the first quarter with Florida installing more new installations than any other state. As a result, the solar industry increased its forecast for the year to 29 gigawatts from 28.4 gigawatts. However, since solar panels have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years, billions of panels will eventually need to be disposed of and replaced, unless they can be recycled. Because each solar panel contains only tiny fragments of precious materials, copper, silicon and silver, and those fragments are intertwined with other components, it has not been economically viable to separate them. Over 60 percent of the mineral value is contained in just 3 percent of the weight of the solar panels.
- Solar installations are up sharply in 2023 driven mainly by billions of dollars of subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act and state mandates.
- Panels are largely imported and legislation had caused a bottleneck at U.S. ports until the Biden Administration loosened the restrictions dealing with forced labor from China.
- With many solar panel retirements coming at their 25th or 30th year of operation, solar panel waste will result in huge increases at disposal sites unless recycling becomes economic.
U.S. First Quarter Solar Installations
Large projects for utilities and other big customers led installations with 3.8 gigawatts, up 66 percent from a year earlier. The capacity increase shows that the tight supplies of imported panels resulting from the implementation of a law, the Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act, to weed out products made with forced labor has lightened. U.S. customs officials released more than a third of the electronic equipment, including solar panels, detained since last year under the law. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released 552 electronics shipments worth $345 million out of a total of 1,627 industry shipments valued at $841 million that were held for examination. It is unknown what percentage of those shipments are solar equipment, but last year through October, CBP had detained more than 1,000 shipments of solar energy equipment. As a result, twelve gigawatts of solar modules were imported in the first quarter compared with 29 gigawatts in all of 2022.
As of January 2023, 73.5 gigawatts of utility-scale solar capacity was operating in the United States, about 6 percent of the U.S. total capacity, due mainly to state and federal policies that provide generous tax incentives, the most recent coming from Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.
Residential solar also increased in the first quarter, rising 30 percent to 1.6 gigawatts. Homeowners in California, the sector’s biggest market, tried to install their rooftop solar systems before California’s new policy cut a subsidy for solar panel owners beginning in April.
In many other states, a slowdown is occurring in solar installations due to economic uncertainty. As a result, residential solar installations are only expected to increase 8 percent this year despite incentives in President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. Growth rates are expected to be in the low teens between 2024 and 2028, with installations tripling from their current level by 2029.
Despite the good first quarter news for solar panels, they still suffer from low capacity factors compared to conventional generating plants such as natural gas, coal and nuclear, require a great amount of land, and do not operate when the sun is not shining. They typically only produce at a capacity factor of less than 30 percent for utility scale operations. The recent wildfires hitting the United States from Canada, for example, reduced the output from solar farms in New England and the Middle Atlantic. Solar farms powering New England were producing 56 percent less energy at times of peak demand compared with the week before and electricity generated by solar across the territory serviced by PJM Interconnection LLC, which spans Illinois to North Carolina, was down about 25 percent from the previous week.
Solar Panel Waste and Recycling
The world has installed more than one terawatt of solar capacity on rooftops and at solar farms. Ordinary solar panels have a capacity of about 400 watts, resulting in as many as 2.5 billion solar panels worldwide. As the solar panels are retired, many of these panels end up in waste disposal sites as the specialist infrastructure to scrap and recycle them is lacking. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)’s official projections claim that “large amounts of annual waste are anticipated by the early 2030s” and could total 78 million metric tons by 2050 based mostly on a 30 year life cycle for the solar panels.
At the end of June, the world’s first factory for recycling solar panels will open in France. ROSI, the solar recycling company which owns the facility in Grenoble, hopes eventually to be able to extract and reuse 99 percent of a unit’s components. Along with recycling the glass fronts and aluminum frames, the new factory is expected to recover nearly all of the precious materials contained within the panels, such as silver and copper, which are typically some of the hardest materials to extract. The rare materials can be recycled and reused to make new solar units. Conventional methods of recycling solar panels can recover most of the aluminum and glass, but the glass, in particular, is of relatively low-quality used to create tiles, or in sandblasting. It can also be mixed with other materials to make asphalt, but it cannot be used in applications where high-grade glass is required, such as the production of new solar panels.
In the future, the hope is that nearly three-quarters of the materials needed to make new solar panels, including silver, can be recovered from retired PV units and recycled, which would help to speed up production of new solar panels. Currently, there is not enough silver available to build the millions of solar panels which will be required in the transition from fossil fuels, creating a major bottleneck to that transition.
Solar power gets huge financial incentives with the most recent stemming from President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. As government officials began to release solar equipment held due to the Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act, solar installations increased with over 6 gigawatts being installed in the first quarter of 2023—a record–with 12 gigawatts imported that quarter, mostly likely coming from China or elsewhere in Asia, but still manufactured by Chinese companies. The large influx of solar panels will result in massive waste once they retire that will be sent to landfills unless recycling facilities open. Since only a small amount of precious metals are in solar panels, and the glass is of low-quality, recycling has not been economic. A company in France, however, believes it has the ability to eventually recover 99 percent of the components of solar panels. Unless that occurs and becomes economic, the huge amounts of waste could result in higher solar prices if the industry were held accountable for the waste.