Solar has become a staple of the U.S. power generation mix in the last decade. Now that the industry is maturing, it’s time to have a tough conversation: The solar industry needs to improve its circular practices.

Like any industry, the solar industry has unique machinery and equipment; specifically, its photovoltaic (PV) cells have silicon, metal, glass and plastic components that are melded together in order to create a functioning solar panel.

But these cells have a limited lifespan of about 25-30 years. Most of the component materials retain their value, however, and can be reused to participate in the circular economy, the economic system that aims to keep resources in use and eliminate waste.

At GreenBiz Group’s virtual clean economy conference, VERGE 20, last week, industry experts discussed the complexities of circularity in solar.

The solar industry is still growing — the International Energy Agency predicts that total renewable based power capacity will grow by 50 percent between now and 2024, and 60 percent of that rise will be attributed to solar. Given this rapid increase and dependency on solar, Evelyn Butler of Solar Energy Industry Alliance (SEIA) emphasized that with increased capacity comes increased waste.

The challenge is making PV waste recycling and repurposing more efficient than it currently is in order to move towards a more circular economy.

Some of these opportunities arise at the solar manufacturing level. As Andreas Wade of First Solar explained, the energy-resource nexus is a top priority at First Solar. The company works throughout the production, deployment and maintenance parts of the solar industry. Since 2005, First Solar has been a part of an established global recycling and take-back program for its panels since 2005. To Wade, a major area of development for circular economy practices in the solar industry is repurposing materials used to create solar cells, like crystalline silicon and aluminum.

For First Solar, material recovery goes beyond the traditional model of bulk recycling and recovering glass and aluminum, but also taking back the semiconductor system such that it can be reused in new panels. Wade claimed that First Solar is now able to recover 90 percent of its panel's semiconductor functions.

Read the full article about making solar circular by Myisha Majumder at GreenBiz.