Solar panels may be the epitome of green hardware, but as the technology advances and more powerful panels take over the market, older panels are turning into harmful waste. Now one California-based startup, SolarCycle, is taking advantage of that waste by recycling components of the panels and selling them off for profit.
SolarCycle claims it can inexpensively extract about 95% of the high-value materials in solar panels, like silver, silicon, copper and aluminum. Those can then be repurposed or returned to the supply chain, creating a circular solar economy.
"Initially we are extracting the materials and then selling those back to other suppliers that will use them for new products, but long term, we are focused on doing research and development on making new panels from these old panels," said SolarCycle CEO Suvi Sharma, noting that so far the only solar panel recycling has been both rudimentary and expensive.
"We are applying very advanced technology to recycle solar panels, to extract all the key materials out of these panels."
Sharma says there is surprisingly little competition in solar recycling because the technology for it was lagging, causing a gap in the market. What was available was rudimentary and expensive. But solar technology is advancing rapidly, making new panels far more efficient and older ones far less useful, spurring demand for recycling.
The U.S. alone could see about 1 million metric tons of solar panel waste by 2030, as older models either fail or are replaced by more powerful ones, according to a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Partnering with Sunrun, one of the largest solar services providers in the U.S, is allowing the barely year-old company to recycle at scale.
"It is absolutely cost-effective in the context of what our customers desire for us to be doing and the future of solar panels and the clean energy revolution," said Sunrun CEO Mary Powell.
Not only cost-effective, but valuable. Recyclable materials from solar panels could be worth more than $2.7 billion by 2030, up from $170 million this year, according to Rystad Energy.
While SolarCycle is still in very early stages, Sharma says the company is quickly seeing high demand.
"We see growing from virtually zero, we did start generating revenue this year, to $100 million in revenue in the next few years," he said.
Investors include Lyndon Rive of SunPower, Peter Rive of SolarCity, Closed Loop Partners, and Urban Innovation fund. It's raised $6.6 million so far.
CNBC climate producer Lisa Rizzolo contributed to this piece