NC recycling facility ramps up to become a hub for solar panels

SALISBURY, N.C. — There are tens of millions of solar panels installed in the Carolinas and while each lasts about 20-30 years, eventually, they’ll all get decommissioned or replaced. If they all end up in state landfills, that’s billions of pounds of wasted glass, aluminum, and silicon and an added risk of heavy metals leeching into our soil and water.

Powerhouse Recycling, an electronics waste company based in Salisbury, wanted to find another solution. In 2018, the company began research into complete solar panel recycling, launching the technology in 2023 under the brand SolarPanelRecycling.com.

As the first facility on the East Coast promising to recycle nearly the entire panel, the company has attracted attention from across the country. Panels travel from as far as California and New York, though CEO Brett Henderson said most come from partners around the Carolinas. In its first year, the facility recycled about 68,000 panels and this year, Henderson expects to recycle more than 150,000 panels.

Currently, most of these are panels broken during storms or installation, but in the coming years, Henderson said the demand will likely skyrocket as the first generation of solar facilities either retire or replace their panels with newer, more efficient technology.

“We think the growth is going to be pretty substantial year over year with at some point in the next three to five years, starting to see hundreds of thousands, if not millions of panels, entering our facilities throughout the country in a given year,” he said.

On a tour of the facility, Garrett Powell, the director of sourcing and client services, walked WSOC through the process. A specialized machine was designed to take the panel apart and separate the components.

First, the machine loads the panel and takes a picture so its AI can adjust to the unique size, shape, and configuration of the panel, which varies widely between generations, brands, and type. Next, the machine removes the panel’s junction box, essentially the output for the panel’s electronics.

After that, the process removes the aluminum frame, cuts most of the glass off the cells, and then the remaining paper-thin panel is shredded and separated into its components.

“Without going through these different stages, you’re not going to recover any clean separation,” Powell said. “We’ve got plastic, silicon, copper.”

Separating those components is what makes the resources ready for reuse. Powell explains copper, aluminum and the circuitry in the junction box are nothing new for an e-waste facility and there are plenty of existing markets for those resources. Glass is 100% recyclable too, though its weight means it’s expensive to transport for reuse.

Henderson said the silicon however is newer to the recycling scene, so the company is still looking for a market for the commodity and ways to purify it further.

“Once that occurs, we’ll be able to start lowering our costs,” he said.

In the current stage, Henderson said costs are a substantial barrier to panel recycling. The panels are large and heavy, so one semi-truck can only fit roughly 450. As many of these utility-scale facilities have tens if not hundreds of thousands of panels each, it’s easy to imagine why one might truck them to a local landfill rather than hundreds of miles to one of few facilities like Powerhouse.

Henderson said Solarpanelrecycling.com plans to open additional facilities in Texas and the northeast in the coming years to try and shorten those distances. Another factor is policy.

“Currently, landfill tipping fees are going to be a little bit lower than recycling,” he said.

States where it’s more expensive to toss solar panels or impose limits on how much a utility can throw away will be more inclined to seek recyclers. North Carolina currently does not require panel recycling but a law passed last year does require any solar project greater than 2MW to produce a decommissioning plan explaining how the panels will be disposed of.

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.