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  • Writer's pictureGreen Clean Solar

To Maximize Sustainability for Utility-Scale Solar, It’s Imperative to Recycle Metals



Want to offset your solar waste management costs? Then, separating out and recycling metals on your job site is imperative. The solar industry is intrinsically linked to the use of various metals. These materials are essential for the structural and electrical aspects of functioning large solar installations. From the robust frames that hold solar panels together to the intricate wiring that connects them, metals like aluminum, steel, and copper play critical roles. Aluminum is widely used for framing and support structures due to its lightweight, corrosion-resistant, and cost-effective nature. Steel's strength makes it a popular choice for solar racking, while its corrosion resistance qualities can exceed those of aluminum.


The global solar capacity has seen a significant increase, with worldwide solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity expanding almost 20 times over the past decade. This surge in solar installations has driven down costs and increased the demand for metals used for construction.


​Specifically, the demand for aluminum in solar PV is projected to rise significantly. By 2040, solar's share of total aluminum consumption could increase from 3% to 12.6%​​.


Given this heavy reliance on metals, the responsibility of managing these resources sustainably falls on EPCs and manufacturers. These entities play a pivotal role in ensuring that the end-of-life management of solar installations does not adversely impact the environment. Recycling these metals becomes a matter of economic opportunity to offset costs, environmental stewardship, and improved ESG metrics. 





This article aims to highlight the necessity of recycling metals, focusing on critical components like bent/damaged or unused torque tubes, purlins, overstock racking components, and nuts and bolts, and the benefits that such practices offer to the solar industry and beyond.


Recycling metal for large-scale solar installs and decommissions

Below are some examples of metal components that highlight the predominance of steel and aluminum and the need to recycle them


Racking systems

The material primarily used for racking is aluminum and/or steel. These systems hold solar panels in place, ensuring optimal alignment and movement with the sun. Aluminum is used for its versatility, cost-effectiveness, and corrosion resistance. Steel is preferred for its greater strength, supporting larger modules and offering excellent corrosion resistance qualities​.


Metal frames for panels

The material used for framing is mainly aluminum. Frames provide structural support for solar panels, protecting them from environmental stresses. Aluminum's lightweight and corrosion-resistant properties make it ideal for long-lasting solar panels. Its strength-to-weight ratio is crucial for supporting heavy solar arrays without compromising structural integrity​. For this reason, leftover, mangled, or decommissioning racking is ideal for recycling as it can help offset the costs of other waste management efforts. 


Piles and bent piles (from testing)

Steel is the primary material for pile driving. Piles are used to anchor solar panel structures to the ground, providing stability. Steel's durability and strength make it suitable for withstanding environmental pressures, ensuring the longevity of the solar installation. These materials are highly recyclable, and for pile testing and decommissioned sites, it is recommended to collect and recycle them. 


Nuts, bolts, and fastening systems

When it comes to fastening products, the most common material used is carbon steel in various grades and alloyed carbon steel. These components are essential for assembling and securing solar panels and supporting structures. There may be buckets upon buckets of excess fastening materials. It's recommended to keep some of these leftovers for future repairs and replacements; however, in excess, they can be sent back to the manufacturer, donated, or recycled as scrap to offset costs. 


Purlins

Commonly, purlins are made of galvanized steel and or aluminum. Steel is the preferred metal for its strength and ability to support heavy loads, which is crucial in solar installations. Purlins are recyclable and should be a part of your metal recycling loads.


Transformers and other electrical components

For transformers and other electrical components copper, various alloys, and thin laminated sheets of ferrous metal, most commonly silicon steel, are used for transformers and electrical components. These components are essential for the conversion and transmission of electrical energy generated by solar panels. Copper is used extensively due to its excellent electrical conductivity and relative corrosion resistance. ​


Steel, aluminum, and copper wiring are the predominant materials used in solar installations due to their strength, corrosion resistance, and lightweight properties. As the solar industry continues to grow, the importance of these metals only increases, underscoring the need for effective recycling strategies to ensure their sustainable use and availability into the future. 


The environmental and economic perils of landfilling solar metals

Disposing of solar metal waste, components like torque tubes, purlins, and racking systems, in landfills poses significant environmental and economic challenges, impacting both the industry and the broader ecosystem.


Environmental impact of disposing solar metals in landfills

These are some of the downfalls of taking your metals and tossing them in a waste bin or contaminating them, making them destined for the landfill. 


1. Resource wastage

Metals such as aluminum and steel, used in torque tubes and purlins, are all finite resources that were once mined as virgin materials but can be recouped and recycled back into the system. Disposing of these metals in landfills represents a loss of valuable materials that could otherwise be recycled, reused, and preserved for future use in the industry. When we toss these materials in the trash, we weaken supply, and when demand increases, the prices for these materials skyrocket. To better control costs today, it's imperative that in the solar industry, we mind our metals. 


2. Soil and water contamination

Metals can leach into the soil and groundwater over time if left on site, leading to environmental contamination. This is particularly concerning for components that contain hazardous substances and are hit with multiple wet weather events that corrode and leach. 


3. Increased carbon footprint

The production of new metals to replace those lost to landfills requires significant energy, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling metals, in contrast, often require less energy and, therefore, has a smaller carbon footprint.


Resource loss and its effect on the solar industry's growth

The increasing demand for metals in the solar industry, coupled with the loss of these materials to landfills, could lead to a scarcity of essential raw materials. For instance, the demand for aluminum in solar PV is projected to rise significantly, potentially increasing solar's share of total aluminum consumption to 12.6% by 2040. As raw materials become scarcer, the cost of manufacturing new components may rise, potentially impacting the affordability and scalability of solar energy solutions.


Economic implications of waste vs. recycling


Lost Economic Value

Metals in landfills represent a significant loss of economic value. These materials, if recycled, could be reintroduced into the manufacturing process, reducing the need for new raw materials.


Recycling as a cost-effective solution

Recycling metals from solar installations is not just environmentally sustainable; it's also economically viable. Recycling processes typically require less energy and thus are less expensive than extracting and processing new metals.


Job creation and Economic growth

The recycling industry holds the potential for job creation and economic growth. As demand for recycled metals increases, new opportunities emerge in the recycling sector, contributing to local economies.


What are the benefits of recycling solar metals?

The recycling of solar metals, an often-overlooked aspect of solar energy systems, offers many benefits, ranging from resource recovery to economic incentives. This section delves into the advantages of recycling solar metals, particularly focusing on components like damaged or unused torque tubes and purlins, as well as the broader implications for the industry and society.


Resource recovery and industry growth

Sustainable material supply - Recycling damaged or unused solar components ensures a continuous supply of essential materials. This is critical in an industry where the demand for metals like aluminum and steel continually rises.

Conservation of natural resources - Recycling reduces the need for new mining activities, conserving natural resources and minimizing environmental impact.


Innovation and efficiency - Recycled materials can often be processed and returned to the supply chain more efficiently than new materials, driving innovation in recycling technologies and techniques.


Local resource utilization

Supporting domestic industries

Recycling within local or national boundaries bolsters the domestic supply chain. This reduces reliance on imported materials, enhancing the resilience and self-sufficiency of the solar industry.


Energy efficiency

Local recycling reduces transportation needs, thereby lowering associated energy consumption and emissions.


Economic incentives

Recycling solar metals can be an effective way to recoup costs and put money back into the project. Especially considering the rising costs associated with mining and raw material procurement, this will help keep costs down for each material for which we increase recycling rates. 


Consider the rebates, as many regions offer financial incentives or rebates for the metals recycled from solar projects, provided they are separated correctly and not contaminated.


Companies that adopt efficient recycling practices may gain a competitive edge in the market and can use their good practices for PR, marketing, and best practice education for leadership in the industry. 


Community and Economic Support

Job creation is another huge advantage of taking the initiative to recycle metals. Beyond growing the job market for solar, recycling solar materials boosts other industries like domestic waste and recycling. The recycling industry is labor-intensive, and when we recycle, we create numerous jobs, from collection and processing to transportation and administration.


These practices are conducted regionally and locally to boost local economies. Recycling contributes to the local economy by also supporting ancillary businesses, such as transportation and equipment manufacturing.


Enhancing ESG scores

Investors want to see project metrics that support good ESG reporting. Recycling metals is good to show on your ESG reporting. Metals that are not recycled will also be accounted for in the future, and transparency in reporting is on the rise. Here are some impacts that recycling your solar metal can have on the environmental metrics of your project.


A reduced carbon footprint as metals that go to recycling facilities get turned into new items and require less energy than producing/mining for new metals, leading to lower greenhouse gas emissions.


By recycling, companies demonstrate a commitment to sustainable practices, enhancing their reputation and aligning with the values of environmentally conscious stakeholders.


Recycling solar metals is a strategic decision that offers tangible benefits for resource recovery, economic growth, community support, and improved sustainability metrics. As the solar industry continues to expand, the role of recycling in ensuring its sustainable growth becomes ever more crucial.


Meanwhile, landfilling solar metals poses substantial environmental risks and economic setbacks. It leads to the loss of finite resources, contributes to environmental degradation, and results in missed economic opportunities. 


EPCs and manufacturers hold the highest opportunity and responsibility for adopting robust recycling practices as a crucial component of their operations and client support. 


Contact Green Clean Solar for your metal recycling needs! We have the crews, equipment, and expertise to get you the best pricing for your solar metals. 

Tel: 770-229-7168 | Email: easyclean@greenclean-solar.com  

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