Solar panels don’t last forever, but they don’t have to die either. A California startup called Solarcycle has developed proprietary technology to convert old panels into materials for new ones.
The company’s CEO and co-founder, Suvi Sharma, says the technology can return more than 95% of valuable materials such as aluminium, glass, copper, silver and silicon to the domestic solar value chain. That may result in a more sustainable and scalable solar industry in the United States that is less dependent on foreign suppliers.
Solarcycle has just raised $30 million in Series A funding, bringing the company to a total of $37 million since its inception in January 2022. The round was led by major wealth manager Fifth Wall and HG Ventures, a division of Heritage Group. Other participants included Prologis Ventures and existing investors Urban Innovation Fund and Closed Loop Partners.
The equity and infrastructure funding will be used to increase the capacity of a Solarcycle recycling facility in Texas from 500,000 to 1 million modules by the end of the year and to invest in further research and development.
Sharma explains that solar panels last at most 25 to 30 years. As a result, modules that were installed decades ago are reaching the end of their useful life and being landfilled or being replaced by the mining of new materials.
He says he spent 18 years in the solar industry and helped found Solarcycle out of necessity. “I’ve been looking for a recycler who can actually recycle solar panels, but I couldn’t find any.”
A report by Yale Environment 360 describes an expected increase in end-of-life solar panels from the fastest growing energy source in the US, stating that about 90% of old panels end up in landfills after becoming inefficient or defective due to age.
Solarcycle is one of only five companies in the United States listed by an industry group as capable of providing recycling services.
Sharma argues that Solarcycle has the most advanced and cost-effective solution.
“We are a solar-recycling company, not a solar-recycling company.”
But there is a lot of need for solar panel recycling.
“There are about 500 million solar modules installed in the country,” says the CEO. “There are more solar panels than people.
“There will be 1 million (solar panels) in the next five years,” partly from incentives for domestic manufacturing under the Inflation Reduction Act.
“We need more materials for these and we need to extract these materials for the next generation of panels from the old panels that are reaching end of life.”
The Solar Energy Industries Association said in a recent Solar Market Insight Report that “forecasts for this year and next show a broad market recovery, with growth averaging 19% per year across all sectors through 2027.”
Solarcycle can recycle more than 90% of a solar panel in terms of volume or weight. According to Sharma, the technology can recycle more than 95% of the materials from an old panel. The company is still in the process of completing the recycling of plastics.
Solarcycle has corporate headquarters in Oakland, California. Its 15-acre recycling facility in Odessa, Texas, accepts panels from residential, commercial, industrial and utility sources.
The process is being refined in Texas, and Solarcycle hopes to expand capacity from 500,000 panels per year to 1 million by the end of 2023. That’s a lot, but “we’re really at the tip of the iceberg on this,” says Sharma.
Research by Norway’s Rystad Energy estimates that recyclable materials from solar panels will be worth more than $2.7 billion by 2030, up from $170 million this year.
“While the end-of-life power from solar panels is relatively small today,” Sharma says, “it’s growing extremely fast and will continue to do so for the next 20 years — almost exponential growth.”
At its Texas facility, Solarcycle builds a system using solar panels that are “second-life” or ones that are still working but have been replaced by users looking to upgrade. The company plans to install the system this year, and Sharma says it can provide all or most of the energy needed to run the recycling plant.
Any old panel will come in handy later. “If it really does reach the end of its life, we don’t have to send it anywhere. We just recycle it on site, with a huge environmental benefit,” he says.
Beyond the recent round of funding, Solarcycle wants to expand further into areas where old modules need to be recycled.
“Like California, for example, the Southwest is currently the largest solar state,” says the CEO. “Also, it has a lot of legacy systems. At the moment we are bringing in records from all over the country for recycling. If the demand grows, we will build something closer to California in the Southwest.”
At the moment, Solarcycle has a national focus and international aspirations. According to Sharma, the majority of solar products installed in the US over the past five to 10 years have come from China or Chinese manufacturers.
“In order to build a strong domestic solar cell manufacturing industry here, it is crucial to reintroduce these materials, such as glass, aluminum and silicon, into the material set for the next generation of modules. That way we can really become more self-sufficient in solar manufacturing in the US.”