Solar Panel Recycling An Interview on the Future of Renewable Energy Waste Management
Updated: Apr 18
In this insightful interview, Denise Anderson-Rivas, Director of Environmental Content at AR Environmental Content Marketing, speaks with Emilie Oxel O’Leary, the CEO & Owner of Green Clean Solar, a company focused on tackling waste in the solar industry. Emilie shares her journey into the solar industry, which led her to discover the growing issue of waste in large-scale solar projects. Motivated to find a solution, Emilie founded Green Clean Solar in 2022. She is joined by Brandon Beckwith, a waste and recycling expert and Director of Operations at Green Clean Solar. Together, they discuss the origins of Green Clean Solar, their mission to address waste in the solar industry, and the importance of finding sustainable solutions for waste management in solar projects.
Denise Anderson-Rivas: Emilie, how did you get into solar, and why did you enter the solar industry?
Emilie Oxel O’Leary: So one of the things that I did was I started another business back in 2016, and that was a commercial installation company. And so I built projects all over the United States. We did carports, rooftops, and solar farms. And one of the things that we evolved into was utility-scale projects. And so with utility-scale projects, you usually start at 50 megawatts and larger.
And so I was out in the field, and I was talking to a lot of my workers, and they brought this to
my attention - all the waste. So when I was walking out in the field, you know, it's a lot different from a one megawatt to a 50 megawatt. Not only do you have more material, you have more people, and you have a lot going on as far as operational.
So when I was out in the field, I would talk to my client, and he was very frustrated with all the trash because our crew was out there to build the system, and that was their focus. They wanted to build it fast. They wanted to get in and get out. Well, when you're building things quickly,
you kind of leave a mess. It's kind of like when you're in the kitchen, you're cooking, and you've got flour, you've got this, you're making a mess.
But at the end of the day, you've got this great meal or this great entree. Well, for solar, you've got this great project, but you have all this mess. And so when I was out in the field, I had workers are like, Emilie, look at all these broken solar panels. Look at all this cardboard and waste. And my customer was like, you know, this garbage, you have to do something about it.
And I'm like, I know, I know. I don't know what to do, but I know this is a problem. So it really motivated me to say, Okay, this can't continue. And so that really led me to start Green Clean Solar because I wanted green to be in the name because of what we do.
I wanted clean to be in the name because we are cleaning the site. So those two things, I really wanted to come together and be like, look, we've got to clean this stuff up, and we've got to find a solution for all this material.
And so, one by one, we started to figure out. Okay, we've got the cardboard, and we've got the wooden pallets, we've got the broken solar panels, we've got plastic, we've got steel. You know, all these items have a big deal on a solar field. And so, you know, to be able to separate it and to be able to find solutions was really something that I knew we could do. But it takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of research, it takes a lot of partnerships, and companies that can understand our processes. And I would call our partners, and I'm like, we need this material to go to you. And they're surprised, you know, they're like, you have this much. And I'm like, yes. So that's exciting. But that's really kind of why I started this, because I knew there was a problem, and we really had to find solutions for all this material.
Brandon Beckwith: My name is Brandon Beckwith. I'm from California, and I come from a background in waste and recycling. So it's a fantastic opportunity to be able to meet Emilie, and having that mesh between solar and recycling is awesome.
Denise Anderson-Rivas: Well, you guys are quite the duo. So two questions, why did you start Green Clean Solar? And then when did you come aboard, and how does that work?
Emilie Oxel O’Leary: So I started, like I said, Green Clean Solar back in 2022 . And the reason why I started it is because there was a huge problem in our industry I had another business where I built these projects all over the country, and we did carports, rooftops, solar fields, And during that process, I saw so much waste that was happening in our industry. We were building these great projects. We were taking all the waste and putting it in a dumpster, and it was going to a landfill. And I thought this is counterintuitive. It doesn't make any sense. So what can we do about it?
So it really motivated me to start Green Clean Solar and show that, you know, there are options. There are solutions to all this waste. So that's the exciting part is, you know, when I saw that there was a problem and I know that I can find a solution, that's really what motivated me to start my business. And so I knew I couldn’t do this by myself. So I was very blessed to be introduced to Brandon. And Brandon has this amazing background that I felt was a perfect match for what Green Clean Solar is doing and what his experience was doing.
Bradon Beckwith: So I have a background in the waste and recycling industry. So I worked for a fantastic company where I had the opportunity to work as both a regional manager and an account executive. It was a blessing to be able to meet Emilie and be able to come on board and help push her vision forward.
I've always wanted to be a part of something new and innovative and also something that will help the world in one way or another. And it's very exciting and glad to see this moving forward.
Denise: Excellent. So I know there are not a lot of women in solar. In college I worked at the recycling center and I used to bail huge bales of aluminum and it's a messy job. I was the only woman on site and I know it’s similar for the solar industry. So what advice do you have for women that want to get into this industry?
Emilie Oxel O’Leary: Well, I've had a lot of women come to me and kind of ask me, you know, is this a good industry? Is this a good career? Because it's a very much a male dominant industry and it can be tough and rough many times.
So what I say, take your skills, whether, you know, for example, your background and find an avenue within this industry that you feel you have a passion about. And there are so many offers and opportunities. I mean, from engineering, product development, construction, I mean, there are so many avenues within this industry that you could go down with. So take that leap, get out of a career that you may not be happy about and get into solar, because the community that we have built here is amazing. I love the people that are in the space and you would excel because there are so many opportunities to show your skills. And I just tell them to take that leap and just dove in, and you'll be really impressed with the options that you have. But you just kind of have to take that first step and really make a difference.
Denise Anderson-Rivas: Yeah, and Green Clean Solar has had some predominantly women crews because we've shared those photos and, you know, highlighted the women.
Emilie Oxel O’Leary: And the women that I have worked with have been phenomenal. And I say that because we have a different skill set than some of the men. And so we are able to do some things maybe a little bit more efficient, more impactful. But I have been out on the field
where we have a crew of women of five or six women, and we get stuff done. You know,
we see things. We know how to do it. We get it done.
So I've been really fortunate to have women specifically out in the field collecting material, separating it, and they love what they do. So there is labor involved. But then I have women that are in the office that help support me and are really good with administrative work. And, you know, she came she didn't come from solar, but she can learn very quickly. And she has, you know, have done an amazing job for me. So it's been really exciting to see the women really excel and shine in this industry.
Denise Anderson-Rivas: Great. And for solar companies, that want to recruit more women. What would you suggest to them?
Emilie Oxel O’Leary: Well, the companies that I have met with that do have women, they have nothing but good things to say. And I think they realize that women are very powerful. They're very strong. A lot of them are Type A personalities. And some of the men are get blown away. They're like, wow. So I feel that the company should definitely hire a lot more women, bring them to the table, have conversations, and hear their ideas because we do see things differently. We can make things happen. And again, because this is such a male dominant industry that having more women at the table sharing their thoughts can actually propel us into a whole new level of opportunities for our industry So, like I said, women have a lot of say and can articulate things and be able to make things happen.
Denise Anderson-Rivas: You're a leader, so who do you see in the solar industry as leaders that are paving that way?
Emilie Oxel O’Leary: Well, I've been so happy to see women at the federal level. So the Department of Energy has for example, Jennifer Granholm, who is the director there, and she is just a rock star. So having women at Washington, DC really promote and embrace renewables has been such a great avenue for women to say, hey, look, these women are in these high-level positions for the United States. They're representing our industry. And I see that they're making so much headway. So I think it's great to have women in leadership roles at that high level. Yeah, I know.
Denise Anderson-Rivas: We also got to speak with Shalaya Morrisette and she was amazing; she was so helpful.
Emilie Oxel O’Leary: So I can see that in the Department of Energy, where they're really just like taking the torch and adapting it. And they want to embrace more women to start businesses. Your company being in this field. I love it. I love to see women start businesses and grow and be in this space and see all the opportunities, whether it's the contracts or the manufacturing side of things. We definitely need more women in business in this industry.
Denise Anderson-Rivas: So for people who would say, hey, waste, you know, solar waste will wait, 20 years, we'll wait for that end of life period to handle this, you know, calm down. Let's let's focus on installing. What would you say to that?
Emilie Oxel O’Leary: Well, I know I've been there. I've done that. You know, you get on a job site, and your focus is like, let's get this project done. You know, it can take one month,
two months, or three months. These utility scale projects can take years. And so, yes, their focus is to get them built. But okay, we have this backend problem that we really have to have conversations on. We really have to start addressing what the end of life is.
You know, there are communities, there's farmers, there's people are embracing renewables coming to. For example, we've got this great project in Hawaii and they love the project, but
they're like, Okay, this isn't forever. So what are we going to do after 25 years? Let's have those conversations. Let's talk about it.
You know, we price a lot of projects for decommission and you know, we do our best as far as like we'll price it today. But things really can change in, years. But have these companies start having these conversations of like, what are we going to do with the end of life when it comes to the racking to the material, to the panels because we will either have to repurpose it, we'll have to replenish it, upgrade it. I mean there's a lot of options but when you have these huge projects in your pipeline, it's good to have these conversations. Okay, you know, we have to maintain it.
There's going to be a lot of breakage, there's going to be a lot of maintenance, what are we going to do with all this stuff? So that's kind of why I started this business, to be like, Let's bring this to the forefront. Let's have these conversations. Let's put it in the plan. Because if you don't have a plan, then at the end, what are you going to do? You're going to start scrambling and be like, Oh my gosh, well, you're going to spend more money than you have to. You're going to dump it where you don't need to and you're going to just, you know, have issues that you really didn't need to have unless you really come together, have a plan, and at least put that on the table for discussions to say, look, okay, we know it's years from here, but let's start thinking about that and what partners can we bring in who do this, you know, because you're building these projects, that's your focus.
You don't really know what to do with waste. And that's where we come in to say, look, you have options, you have solutions. We can help you with. That to kind of let go to manufacturers in that space. I mean, so domestic manufacturing is booming, right?
We're seeing huge surge. And to see a lot of these materials go to the landfills, you know, kind of concerning. So what advice would you give to manufacturers, you know, for helping their customers reduce waste? So we've had so many conversations not just with developer owners, and EPCs, but we're having conversations with the manufacturer. Are you being conscious that once that material comes to the job site, can we recycle it? Because we share a lot with the manufacturers. We have these conversations. We tell them, look, you have material that has what we call mixed material. We can't recycle it. Big wooden pallets with big metal brackets redesign it because we can't shred it with metal on it. Nobody's going to want it. Nobody's going to take it. So be conscious of the packaging material. So when we get it, we can divide it. We can send it to the recyclers that have equipment that can take it and repurpose it. So these are definitely conversations that really start at the very beginning of product development because there's so much innovation that's coming into this space and they're like, We want to get this out. We want to produce those gigawatts, right?
We hear a lot about the production, whether it's the steel whether it's, you know, panels, but we're like, that's awesome. But think about the packaging because with all that material, you're going to have so much waste. And we've been to job sites where there are mounds of material that literally can't be recycled. So we have to educate our industry to say, look, when you are designing products, you have these great innovations. Think about the packaging because it's a big impact in our industry.
Denise Anderson-Rivas: What advice would you have for EPCs that want to start tackling their waste on-site?
Emilie Oxel O’Leary: So EPCs are responsible for managing the waste, and so they know that this is a line item in their proposals. So don't feel like dumpsters have to be the line item, and that's all you're going to spend on the waste. Like really think through your bids, your proposals to be like, you know what, we want to include recycling in our bids. And the reason is that this is good for your business. It's good for the community, it's good for the developers. So the EPCs need to realize we can't just throw all this stuff away so have a line item in your plan that does include recycling. Shouldn't be something that's overlooked or secondary should be a primary focus.
So the EPCs would not like that to be a primary focus for them. That's where we come in. We can make that our main focus. And, you know, I've as I am new to the industry, I'm not new to the waste recycling industry. So a little performance then in the solar sites I've seen, you know, most just dump the landfill dumpsters. It doesn't go much further than that. But as we've mentioned, our project in Maui and some other areas, you know, we'll come in there and we'll assess the material and we'll get a dumpster for cardboard.
We'll get a dumpster for wooden pallets and crates. We'll get a dumpster for metal steel. We also have our trash dumpster. Some things are not recyclable depending on the area, but even if they are, you know, we have our crew sending daily reports to us listing What items are you not recycling? So we can start searching for vendors for it may not be this project, but in the future, like that, we can attack those.
So there's a lot of options that can be that I feel are being overlooked in this industry. And a lot of the EPCs, you know, they have a pipeline of projects right, so they may be booked until 2030. They have all these projects already on their books. Well, if they're not thinking about recycling this is going to be like a hamster wheel. It's going to keep going and going and going. So there's got to be a point where you kind of stop and be like, Okay, we need to change our habits. We have to stop doing the same thing over and over again. And that's again where we come in to be like, Look, you can do the same thing. But instead of having a dumpster that goes to the landfill, have a dumpster that goes to a recycling facility, so there's got to be a point where you really have to change your habits. In a lot of businesses, I feel are worried as well. You know, when we speak to new businesses that are worried, like, oh, this is going to cost us a lot more money here, this is going to be outside of our budget. And, you know, little do most people know, you know, it could be a lack of education or experience throughout the whole project.
Denise Anderson-Rivas: Yeah. And I think it's a bigger impact than people realize because it's kind of genius. You handle it all so they don't have to, you know, spend efforts on any kind of crew cleaning up. It's impressive. So where are you located?
Emilie Oxel O’Leary: So the good thing is we go where the work is and we don't want to put any limitations because this is not only a national problem, but we get calls worldwide because wherever there's solar projects being built, there's going to be this problem and this is a great problem to solve.
So we're definitely starting here in the U.S. We are working in all states, and that's what we can do we want to do. But we would love to in the next couple of years, go to Canada, go to Mexico, help them with these problems in different countries because as long as they are building solar fields, this trash is going to be a problem. And I think once we master it and have so many success stories, we can share that with a lot of other countries.
And we hear this a lot, too, from international companies that are really big in Europe or Asia. They are already a decade ahead of us doing recycling so they're coming to the United States building these projects, and they're like, well, why aren't you doing this? You know, they and it's because we don't have the regulations like a lot of the countries have regulations or laws that are in place that they have to comply to. And we don't have that. But I feel we're going to see that a lot in the very near future.
So that's another conversation with these EPCs to say, look, you're going to have to start doing the right thing. When it comes to all this waste. With solar being such a booming industry due, this is something that needs to be attacked because otherwise it's going to be a huge problem down the road. You know, there's a lot of environmental issues that we run in today because of not being proactive about it. So it's never good to wait on anything. Patience is a virtue, but not easy. Yeah.
And especially, you know, we have conversations with a lot of these islands. You know, they want to be renewable by . They love the whole concept of relying on solar, but they don't want their local landfill with , boxes that are going to come to their island. So these are things that we're tackling. We're finding partners that want this material. But that's a thing, you know, a lot of these islands are going to need our help in providing them with solutions to this problem.
Denise Anderson-Rivas: Okay. So Green Clean Solar sounds like a great solution. What about scalability? Let's say everyone says yes tomorrow is Green Clean Solar set up for that?
Emilie Oxel O’Leary: Yes. We are. Yeah. And we feel there's an avalanche coming and we are ready. So bring it on. We're excited we've got so many wonderful partners that support us that are actually in their warehouse and making additions, hiring people to expect all this waste. So they're waiting on us to bring them all this material. So we are ready to scale and we're really excited about this journey. We have all the partners in place. Yes, this is the calm before the storm, and. We have national partners that, again, are just ready and willing to help us.
Denise Anderson-Rivas: What myths would you guys like to bust?
Emilie Oxel O’Leary: Well, there are a lot of myths when it comes to hazardous materials. And obviously, it is surrounded by solar panels. There are certain solar panel manufacturers that have hazardous waste. And so what we're doing is educating our customers we are going to tell our industry like these are some amazing success stories that we are bringing to the table to show you what we can do with waste. I mean, we're not throwing it away. We literally have these great success stories with our partners. So that's the exciting part of what I love with my job is that, yes, we're cleaning it up. We're making the site clean. We have, you know, making it more safe. But guess what? We have these byproducts that are turning into X, Y, Z from your project that you would have never thought you could do.
Denise Anderson-Rivas: When you're making a switch to something new, you have to educate on it. So, how do you view that in the solar industry? As far as education, what is your perspective on that?
Emilie Oxel O’Leary: When something is new, you want to be able to share facts. You want to be able to share processes, you want to be able to share outcomes. So all that education needs to be out there And so my goal with my business is to be a leader in this, that companies know that they can come to us. We have great content. I tell them that we have teams that literally spend a lot of time researching this and we spend hours collecting data. So it's not just a service, but we are providing support.
And we will be the leaders in this industry to show, okay, here's some education let us help you with this problem and support them in their efforts. And on the topic of reports, you also develop reports. We deal. That is a very critical piece to our business, probably just as much as anything else we do because we want to show them data and we know that it's important to ESG reporting because investors, banks, they want to see what do you. And so we have metrics. We have data we have pictures.
So all of that information we share with our customers, it's part of their service, you know, part of their cost. So to speak of what they get. So it's one more level. We didn't have to do it, but we felt like, look, we want to be transparent. We want to share with you what we're doing. And these reports are so critical. And as we do more and more, we can share with the industry how much waste what's happening. You know and talk about the different materials that can't be recycled too. So a lot of exciting information that I feel that we really are innovative with our services and not many people are doing what we're doing. So I feel like this is such a good service that is needed in our industry.
Denise Anderson-Rivas: I think a lot of people say like, oh, go zero waste. And wonder if that’s even possible sometimes. But one cool thing I do remember seeing in the Green Clean Solar reports is a project that went from many landfill hauls to literally zero with Green Clean Solar
Emilie Oxel O’Leary: Yeah, absolutely. And that's the thing that we can make changes with our customers is that you can come into us, come to us and tell us we're not doing any of it, but we will help you take a little baby step, like take one item, let's see what happens and then take two steps and do more. So any little steps that you take is better than doing nothing.
Denise Anderson-Rivas: Is there a woman that you look up to that you admire that kind of like leads in your mind?
Brandon Beckwith: She's sitting right next.
Emilie Oxel O’Leary: Oh, you're sweet, Brandon. Well, I love entrepreneurs. I've always admired them. I look to entrepreneurs because especially women that are entrepreneurs because it's a big risk when you take on a business because a lot of them fail. I mean, I don't know what the statistics are but a lot of women will try businesses and they fail miserably. Likely I follow her. I have seen her masterclasses and I absolutely love what she has done. And one of the things, as we all know, you know, she saw a problem in our industry and she just went right on with it. And she had many challenges, many myths.
So I feel we're very parallel as far as we both saw a problem in our industry with her being in fashion. I'm in solar. You know, we took this problem and we're finding solutions now. She's several decades ahead as far as what she's accomplished. And I'm only one year into this.
But I feel that she's a great model to kind of follow and know that there's going to be challenges, there's going to be hiccups, there's going to be setbacks. But look at what she's accomplished. I mean, she has made such a huge industry change worldwide. I really want to make a change and honestly revolutionize the solar industry by what we're doing.
Denise Anderson-Rivas: What do you want your legacy to be?
Emilie Oxel O’Leary: I feel that we are trailblazers. We are doing something very unique, something very different. So my legacy would be like, wow, Emilie kind of revolutionized our business on how we do things. And now everybody is recycling. There's a lot of business out there, and I think there are a lot of opportunities. There's enough business to go around, so I'm supporting other recyclers. I think that what they're doing is awesome. So honestly, the more, the better. And we're in this together.
Denise Anderson-Rivas: Yeah, we are in an all boats will rise situation.
Work with a woman-owned company for your renewable energy site waste management needs. Call or text our team for a quote: Tel: 770-229-7168 | Email: email@example.com