Speeding the Energy Transition
Dec. 20, 2022

Learn Expert Insights on Solar Recycling with Kate Collardson Co-founder Solar Recycle Ep121

Learn Expert Insights on Solar Recycling with Kate Collardson Co-founder Solar Recycle Ep121

On this episode of the Clean Power Hour join Kate Collardson of Solar Recycle to learn how solar panel recycling can help move us towards a more circular economy. Solar Recycle is a free, online platform that connects solar professionals, recyclers, and waste management companies to promote the safe, responsible, and efficient recycling of solar panels.

Through Kate's story, you'll learn about the importance of solar panel recycling in the energy transition, and how it can help us transition to a more sustainable and clean energy future. Solar panels contain valuable elements, so recycling them is a key part of creating a circular economy and avoiding potential harm to human health and the environment.


Kate explains the benefits of Solar Recycle including the ability to track solar panel recycling, keeping solar panels out of landfills, and reducing electronic waste. 


As Kate shares her expertise, we learn the importance of reusing solar panel materials to create a more sustainable energy system, and how this circular economy model can help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Join us on the Clean Power Hour with Tim Montague for this enlightening look at solar panel recycling and the energy transition, and learn how you can be part of the solution.


This video is a must-watch for anyone interested in the circular economy, cradle-to-cradle, solar panel recycling, energy transition, clean energy, landfills, and electronic waste. Don't miss out! Watch now to learn more about solar panel recycling with Kate Collardson of Solar Recycle.


Key Takeaways

  1. When and how Kate joined the solar industry?
  2. What is the state of the United States when it comes to solar panel recycling and take-back policies?
  3. What policies are different US states working on to promote solar recycling?
  4. Kate’s thoughts on what is happening currently in regard to solar recycling?
  5. How the industry can support solar recycling?

Connect with Kate Collardson

Solar Recycle

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Transcript
Tim Montague:

You know, my listeners love to ask me this question. What are we going to do with the millions or billions of solar panels that we're now putting across all of the rooftops and across the landscape in North America and across the world? And I say, too damn, good question. But guess what? There's an answer to that question. And we're gonna dive into that question today. My guest today is an expert on this topic. Her name is Kate Collardson, she is the co founder of a lovely, small organisation soon to be growing organisation called Solar Recycle. Welcome to the show, Kate.

Kate Collardson:

Thanks for having me, Tim. Glad to be here.

Tim Montague:

I have to say this subject is very near and dear to my heart. I do not want to see solar become an ill for the environment or human health. And that's what we're running as fast as we can away from it making the clean energy transition. So we absolutely do not want to be part of the problem. And it's, it's a legitimate question what happens to solar panels. At the end of life, we now have a cadre of them in the early adopting markets like California, Hawaii, on the southwest, and then even markets in the Northeast that were earlier adopters, where energy is expensive. If you didn't know this, that's where solar happens first, where energy is expensive. This is why Japan and Germany, were the earliest adopters. Actually, we have very cheap grid power here in the US because we have loads and loads of fossil fuels. So anyway, can you give us a little background on yourself? And how you came to start solar recycle? Sure,

Kate Collardson:

yeah. Thanks, I, some background on me. I joined the industry in 2006. I started as an installer and I installed for several years, I've then moved to a manufacturer and I've worked for a distributor i I currently work for I'm nydia, and where we make a software that that assists with Oh, NM, I've worn a lot of different hats in the industry. And the reason that I joined this industry was to make the world a better place, I wanted to help reduce humans impact on the planet and wanted to, you know, maintain a habitable planet for as long as we can. I did not join the industry to create a big waste problem. Turns out I might have done a little bit of both. And I went along with a group of other folks became concerned about the fact that we in the industry don't have great infrastructure for dealing with our equipment at the end of its life. So I started researching, finding out what options are out there I started making connections with with folks at Enron or other organisations that were working on this topic, and kind of gained a reputation as somebody who knew something about what to do with end of life equipment. And, you know, along with with a couple of other of my co founders just became inundated with with calls and emails. Hey, Kate, what do we do now? Where are the recyclers? For this equipment? Are there any options for reselling or donating? And I, you know, this group of folks kind of realised we were becoming a bottleneck for all of this information, and that would be much more efficient to to create some sort of clearinghouse for information, that that's accessible to everyone in the industry. So we we founded solar recycle.org We launched about a year ago. And you know, it's a website that provides information on on recyclers, what recyclers are out there. We have information on how to resell equipment, where to donate used equipment, and then we also track policy around end of life solar requirements. Yeah, at the state level, and several states out there do have requirements. And interestingly enough, some of these requirements are seen as as anti solar. So let's talk a little bit

Tim Montague:

about that particularly these quote unquote takeback policies. These are very powerful, if done well. To my knowledge, the Europeans are the leaders in this on this front. You know, if you make a washing machine, for example, and you don't require that the manufacturer take the product back then you will likely end up landfill. And unfortunately, we're running out of landfill space very quickly, even though in places like the US our vast landfills Well, for one, there are huge environmental bad. If you put stuff in a landfill, it's going to leak into the environment, it's going to leak into groundwater. It's going to leak into the air, and it's going to poison people and wildlife and the natural world. And it's just not a good thing. And this has been proven, it is completely bogus. If you say, Oh, we have a leak proof, safe landfill, there is no such thing as a safe landfill. My dad is an expert on landfills. So I grew up learning about landfills. So that's, that's a no, no. And then it's a yes, yes, to have manufacturers be responsible, because then they're motivated to design a product that a lasts a very long time to begin with. And then B can actually be repurposed, taken apart, refurbished, put back together, and back on the street as a washing machine, or a solar panel. And so there's a lovely book that our listeners will want to check out. That's called Cradle to Cradle. And this addresses this very topic of making things differently so that they can actually be repurposed. And you don't have to repurpose it as the original product. But you have to be able to repurpose it as other useful products without there being a huge waste stream, meaning stuff that you can't use and then ends up spreading into the environment or getting shoved under a carpet somewhere and becoming somebody else's problem, so to speak. So what are your what is the state of the state so to speak in the US now around recycling and take back policies or other related policies that are driving good best practices? Sure.

Kate Collardson:

You know, the fact is that there's a patchwork of policies around the US and we don't have one national policy to address this. There are discussions at this at in multiple states about how to how to handle this is there room for extended producer responsibility here? Can we require some kind of payment some some extra fee? That that would help subsidise the the recycling that needs to happen today because recycling is expensive. And you know that we've we've seen policies in states like Washington that have launched and they had a requirement that that manufacturers pay into a fund that would help subsidise recycling? Washington state, the state of Washington, that's right. Yes. Okay. And the the Polit that what happened was, manufacturers called and said, We're not going to sell into the state of Washington with this requirement. And so they've had to put that on hold and rework the policy of the, you know, the best of intentions there. But, but not not the kind of market that could that could require that sort of that sort of structure.

Tim Montague:

Yeah. And you put your finger on something. This is a tightrope walk for the manufacturers, and for the solar industry, right. There's already many headwinds to solar is not cheap. And so that's why we need good legislation to incentivize solar and put it on an equal footing with other forms of energy. We we subsidise all forms of energy, we subsidise roads, we subsidise schools, we subsidise health care. These are called public goods. And it creates the good society that we have. And there's nothing new about subsidising energy and people should stop freaking out about subsidies for solar because it's it's just the way it works. It's too risky, so to speak, for industry to do all the subsidisation. That's why private industry did not build the highway system in the United States. The US government drove that project, and it worked. And now it creates jobs and public and private companies are the ones who do the work, right. But it takes that that good government to create good policies that level the playing field, so to speak, but and so this is a delicate matter. And I'm not saying oh, let's just be willy nilly and make it very difficult on the industry. No, we want to be very thoughtful. And you know, we do have organisations like the ultra low carbon Solar Alliance, which I'm very fond of check that out. And, you know, because carbon the carbon footprint of solar panels is also a factor if you make solar panels with dirty electricity. You have a high carbon solar panel, you can make solar panels with clean energy, meaning hydro, wind and solar. And then you have a much clean Your product. But so what other states besides Washington, though, are working on this? I mean, what's going on in California? That's the bellwether state for environmental policy in this country?

Kate Collardson:

It's a great question. And California is is working on this right now I can say that kalsa has a working group that is convening on a regular basis to talk through what kind of policy would we as an industry like to propose, because we know, it's very clear in the state of California, especially that if we don't help create the policy, it's going to happen anyway. And if we don't have a voice, then it's not going to go in our favour. As they say, if you're not at the table, then you're on the menu.

Tim Montague:

I've never heard that expression, but it's good one. Yeah, Money talks. So you have to figure out how to, to have influence. And that's why organisations like kalsa, and Lcia are so vital to our industry. But I'm curious, have you met any thought leaders on this topic? Who, who say, Kate, I've got this figured out. And this, these are the nuts and bolts of a perfect model policy that you can now shop around to all the governors and state senators and other politicians who are making the state laws. And that's the nature of the beast in America, things happen at the state level first, and then they will go to the federal level. But is there are there you know, this thought leader or thought leaders that quote unquote, have it have, you know, have it dialled in?

Kate Collardson:

I think that a lot of thought leaders are working on it. I don't think that anyone would say we have the perfect solution yet. I think that we're the groups that are out there working on this are working hard to get the right voices at the table, and, and come up with a solution that is palatable to everyone. Yeah. So that's a difficult needle to thread.

Tim Montague:

Yeah. So meanwhile, we have a real problem, per se, right. And that is that we have product that goes to solar projects, and then gets broken and has to be taken off site. And something has to happen with that product. Right? And, you know, colleagues of mine, like Emily oxido, Leary, are in this business. Shout out to clean green solar. You know, they're they're working with installers and developers across the country, and helping them deal with this waste problem. And guaranteeing no landfill. You know, no product going to landfill. But what you know, what I don't know yet is what is happening to that product. When it gets trucked off the site or truck from the factory, I just came from a solar panel factory where, you know, about half a percent of product is somehow substandard, either broken or just doesn't, you know, meet Grade A standards and has to be repurposed or recycled. What's happening to all that material? Because we are now you know, installing What 20 gigawatts of solar in the United States here in 2022. And soon stepping up to 40. And then 60, we're going to triple the industry in the next five years, we're on a 60% growth rate year over year now. Okay, I hope your ears just picked up people because this is a phenomenal economic opportunity, whether you're an installer, an energy professional and aspiring energy professional, looking into solar wind and storage, because it is going to be nothing but pure growth for the next 30 years. And we just want to make sure that this doesn't become an environmental disaster for the next generation or generations. We're already fighting a major environmental disaster called Climate Change, which is going to be kicking our butt on a route on a more and more regular basis. We'll survive as a species. It's not an not a true existential threat. But the question is, is still out there? Will we have the good life be able to maintain the good life that you and I have Kate, if we don't really tackle climate change and make the energy transition post haste? Everybody, thanks for listening to the Clean Power Hour or viewing it on YouTube. We do have a great YouTube channel. If you're not subscribed, please go to clean power dot group and hit that YouTube icon and subscribe to our channel. Of course, you can find all of our content on your favourite audio platform as well. So please give us a rating and review back to the show. So what do you what do you perceive about what's going on in solar recycling today?

Kate Collardson:

Yeah, what I would say to that is, we're at a point where we're still figuring out what At the best method is there are multiple methods out there for how to disassemble modules at the end of their life. And no one technology has risen to the top as being, oh, this is this is the most efficient, this is the most cost effective. Were there, we're working with, you know, chemical removal of of different have metals in the modules where we've got optical sorters like robots sorting the different materials after the the modules have been crushed. And, and I think it's fair to say that different recyclers are using different methods. And each has its advantages and disadvantages. It's important to remember that, you know, we as an industry are, are pretty young. And therefore our end of life practices are nascent. We're just now figuring out what we need to do. And it's important that we figure this out, before we face that, that tsunami, the billions of of panels that you mentioned at the beginning, but it's it's we're not quite there yet. And, and as an industry, we're working hard to get there there. Like I said, several folks, a lot of thought leaders out there who are working to figure this exact question out.

Tim Montague:

And, you know, a shout out to folks like Cesar Barbosa, he has a company called New Life power services in California, he is the boots on the ground, who's taking apart these now 20 year old solar arrays, and finding a second life for the solar panels, there isn't aftermarket in developing countries. You know, imagine low income farmers in rural Mexico, they will gladly take a solar panel that has, you know, only 75 That's only producing at 75%. That's still free electricity. And and so New Life power services, check them out. Really love what they're up to. But I'm still curious, okay, what is happening to solar panels that are not able to be refurbished right now, if the glass is shattered, and you know, the production is just very, very low off the panel, let's say 5%, you really have no choice but to do something. And my understanding is that these materials, you know, get ground up and then separated, you can do this, right, you can separate out the glass, and the aluminium and the silver and the copper. And, and God forbid anything else that is is more hazardous. You know, for the most part, solar panels are not made of hazardous materials. Now thin film is a different animal. Cadmium telluride panels do have cadmium in them. And that is a toxic heavy metal. And that requires special treatment. And first solar, I believe, has 100% Take back policy. So they're the they're the major manufacturer of thin film in the United States and any major manufacturer of solar in the United States for mostly utility scale. But when we're talking about polycrystalline, or crystallin, photovoltaics, there's not a lot of toxic material, per se, it's silicone, it's glass, it's aluminium, it's silver, this is all stuff that is valuable. But it's also put together in a way, in a very intense way to not come apart, right, a solar panel has to be hermetically sealed, it cannot leak. You don't want water getting in there, because water and electricity do not mix. And so it's really a tight box, basically. Right? And so you have to invest a lot of energy in taking that stuff apart. And that costs money. What is the state of that state? Do? You know?

Kate Collardson:

Yeah, you've hit on something that's a really interesting puzzle, the puzzle of how do we create something to last in the elements for decades, and at the same time, make it so that we can take it apart and get it all the materials inside? There recyclers around the country, and they, like I said, have different methods for for, for getting at it, there's there for the most part, hydraulics will take the frames off. There's, you know, a machine that just boom pops those off and you slice off the J box and wires and that's, that's pretty straightforward. And then the next part is is is kind of a decision point, are you going to use something to separate that glass from the the laminate the back sheet the the cells and those those metals? Or do you do you know, cut it up into into squares, crush it, and then sort it. Different recyclers have have different methods for this, but I think in the end right now, one of the major issues that the recycling industry is facing is that fact that it's it's expensive, it can cost you know, 1520 $30 per panel to go to recycle or in some cases, there's their shipping on top of that. And, and when you can take an entire truckload of, of modules to a landfill for 60 bucks, or you can spend that same $60 and recycle two of them, it's it money talks. And in the end, folks who are more concerned about finances than they are about sustainability are going to choose that landfill option, it's simply the most economic option. So that's, that's part of what we're trying to do with this policy is, is to help subsidise that cost and bring it down.

Tim Montague:

Yeah, I'm gonna put your website on the screen here for a second because this is quite interesting. So here is solar recycle.org, just like it sounds solar recycled.org, check it out. And I'm on the recycle page. And then there's a map here. And, you know, there's about 50 companies here that are already listed, and you can add a recycling provider, I love that feature. And then you're just rolling over and you can click on and get contact information and the website for companies like Fabtech and positive energy. And lo and behold, there's there's some companies here in Illinois, that tech seems to be everywhere Z technologies here in Batavia, never heard of them, I would love to hear from some of these companies and connect with you. And if you want to do a deep dive on solar recycling on the show, I'm happy to have that conversation. This is, you know, good information. And but we have to, you know, we have to make sure that we're not just we're not just grinding it up and putting it in a big heap in the back. 40. Right. Because humans will do that, right, where there's money to be earned. They will they will do nefarious things. Unfortunately, I'm not trying to cast shade on the solar recycling industry. I'm casting shade on humanity. We are a profit driven species. And and so but to that point, I guess, Katie, is there an incentive for for companies that are handling recycled or recyclable solar panels to do the right thing

Kate Collardson:

this year? So in the inflation Reduction Act, there that has been expanded to include a tax credit for solar recyclers for solar recycling facilities. So that can help. This is this is a recent addition that was flagged for me and but that that sort of incentive could certainly help with the cost if, if, if recyclers are able to take advantage of that.

Tim Montague:

And, you know, I don't want to just focus on recycling here. You've got you've got pages on policy. And on the policy page, there's, there's quite a few dots on that map. So stuff is happening. You mentioned Washington state, but there's California there's Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, BLM, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Illinois. And then there's also pages on resale, and reuse. So this is a, this is a great clearing house, I want to you know, thank you for creating this resource. Let's talk about how the industry can support solar recycle, and our listeners can get involved. Sure, yeah,

Kate Collardson:

I think that one of the easiest ways is to to participate by clicking that button that you pointed out on the on the website we have this is always been an intended to be a group project for lack of a better term where IT folks Novaes policy of a recycler or an option for for a donation that's not on the website, please click the button and submit the information. We will reach out to the entity that's listed and and send them a survey. And once we have all the information, we will certainly add them to the website. You know, we're working as an organisation to define the future and of of our entity and as as we grow, I think that there will be good volunteering opportunities if folks want to want to participate in and help us and Some way and otherwise, I think that are following us on LinkedIn. And that's that'll be a great way for us to for folks to stay on top of what's going on at solarrecycle.org. And as as opportunities arise for participation that we will certainly listen there.

Tim Montague:

I would encourage our listeners to check out the about us page. You've got some, you know, some very experienced solar and renewable energy professionals on your board like Amanda Bybee, like Stacy Meakin, McKinney, like Alex Blackmer, like Tyler, Kansas, Sue ski, who's been on the show, shout out to Tyler. So that's all good. The only thing I don't see here is a donate page, you definitely want to get how to create a donate page so that people can give financial resources that will, you know, every organisation needs financial resources. And, and it's not too early for that to to, you know, to happen, so to speak, but how else can our almost can our listeners help you Kate in this journey?

Kate Collardson:

Like I said, as, as we continue to grow and develop as an organisation, we will reach out to folks who are, you know, following us on LinkedIn. And we also have a Twitter presence. So those those are, at this point, I think it's fair to say that we are at an early stage as an organisation, we recently got our 501 C three status by working merging with atmosphere Conservancy. And, and that will does allow us to take donations, so that is, that is great feedback, we will, we will certainly figure out how to how to how best to take that kind of support. And then as as far as, you know, other opportunities this, as as we, as our organisation continues to grow, we'll, we'll certainly have have those kinds of opportunities, and we'll let folks like you. And and, you know, our followers know that there's, this is where we are today, and this is the the opportunity to to participate.

Tim Montague:

I mean, I can, I can see many potential outcomes for Solar Recycle, you could become, quote, unquote, part of a larger organisation like Lcia, or the Low Carbon solar lines for that matter. You know, Cradle to Cradle is, is a is a very important concept for, for everybody in any industry to become more familiar with. And more ambitious about when I talk to people about zero waste manufacturing, their eyes glaze over, they do not know what the hell I'm talking about. And this is a thing this is a science, and Americans are scarily naive about it. So the the landfill space is gone, my friends, we that day, that train left the station. And we can't be we can't be having this fantasy about, find them and grind them either. Like there has to be a lower energy, lower carbon solution to the billions and billions of solar panels that are going to be installed on planet Earth. So I want to thank you again, Kate. And how can our listeners find you on social media? Oh, sure.

Kate Collardson:

I I'm on LinkedIn. Kay Collinson. I'd love for folks to look me up happy to to be connected there. That's that's the majority of my social media presences is there on LinkedIn I'm working to get with the times.

Tim Montague:

And I want to give a shout out to torba lens, also solar Fred made this connection for us. We're grateful to Tor for all his work in the clean energy, PR space. And with that, check out all of our content at clean power hour.com that is our website. You can find all our audio, and links to our YouTube channel. Please subscribe to the YouTube channel. And we had 90,000 downloads the podcast recently so we've we're growing. We're a growing venture. We would love to hear from potential sponsors of the show. And we would love for you our listeners to give us a rating and review on Apple and Spotify. That is the way that others will be find this content and there is a growing cacophony of podcasts, but we have been around for five years. We are going to be here in five years. So please follow the Clean Power Hour and give us a rating and a review. With that. I want to say thank you Kate Collinson, co founder of Solar Recycle. I'm Tim Montague. Let's grow solar and storage. Take care everyone