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Responsible Renewables: FabTech's Responsible Approach to the End-of-life and Next Life Solutions for Solar Panels

This blog is part of our series spotlighting leaders in the pursuit and development of Responsible Renewables projects. This series is being hosted in collaboration with Schneider Electric and Korn Ferry. For a background on responsible renewables, we encourage you to start with the introductory blog, which explores the issues and opportunities.

Amidst the global shift towards renewable energy, the solar industry emerges as a beacon of sustainability, signaling a future less reliant on fossil fuels. Yet, this growth comes with the pressing need for responsible disposal and recycling of solar panels.

In this installment of our responsible renewables spotlight series, we’ll highlight the endeavors of FabTech, a leading family-owned business dedicated to refurbishing and reselling solar panels. With a track record of refurbishing and reselling hundreds of thousands of panels in less than eight years, their efforts not only promote environmental stewardship but also democratize solar energy access, making renewable energy more affordable and accessible. Through strategic partnerships with authorized recyclers nationwide, FabTech ensures comprehensive end-of-life services for solar panels, including streamlined transportation management and recycling certificate issuance.

In our conversation with Dr. Janette Freeman,  we explore the company's pivotal role in the responsible decommissioning solar panel market. Dr. Janette Freeman is a Business Development Director at FabTech Solar Solutions, a company that provides refurbishing and recycling services for solar panels. She works with customers, partners, and stakeholders to offer them cost-effective and eco-friendly solutions that extend the lifespan of solar modules and prevent them from ending up in landfills.  She is the author of three books and has a Doctorate of Consciousness Studies.

What are FabTech’s main focuses?

We focus on reusing and recycling solar panels, primarily in collaboration with small and large-scale companies. In our line of work, we often encounter two primary scenarios. The first involves addressing installation damages, which account for approximately 80% of our projects. These panels are damaged during the construction phase and typically lack any reuse value. As a result, these panels must be sent directly to recycling facilities. We arrange partnerships with recyclers in close proximity to the site, so that we can minimize freight and logistics costs. Even though recycling can incur substantial costs, we have observed a positive trend where more companies are opting to recycle damaged solar panels rather than sending them to landfills. This shift indicates a growing willingness among companies to make challenging commitments to sustainability.

The second scenario revolves around decommissioning large commercial and rooftop solar sites. When these sites are taken down, it's crucial to understand the criteria that determine the solar panel's eligibility for reuse, given the significant benefits it offers to our clients when panels meet these qualifications. When panels are qualified for reuse, we are ready to purchase them or cover the shipping costs, so that we can help clients save costs on recycling and disposal. Following the assessment, the panels with value are then repaired, cleaned, and marketed for sale in the secondary marketplace, extending their lifespan and maximizing their potential.

What are the processes involved in reusing and recycling solar panels?

When assessing panels for reuse, we can often assess the suitability of panels based on their visual conditions and age. Panels deemed suitable for reuse are intact and functional, with minimal refurbishment required. Those that are not suitable for reuse will undergo an extensive recycling process. This involves breaking down the solar panels into their constituent components, including aluminum, glass, plastic, silicone, and precious minerals. We collaborate with several trusted partners across the country, all of whom undergo rigorous audits to ensure they possess all necessary sustainability certifications and adhere to comprehensive recycling practices. The issue we face is that solar panels do not hold much value when they are broken down for recycling. However, there is hope on the horizon with new technology emerging in the market. One example is a system that preserves the glass from the panels, keeping it in one large piece for cleaner recycling. These advancements highlight the incremental progress in recycling technology.

Who are the typical buyers of used solar panels?

Our primary clientele comprises individuals seeking to power off-grid properties, DIY enthusiasts aiming to minimize installation expenses, and small-scale installers facilitating cost-effective solar solutions for homeowners. These buyers recognize the opportunity to install solar at a significantly lower cost compared to purchasing new panels, thereby contributing to the widespread adoption of solar energy across diverse applications. From off-grid farms to communities of recreational vehicles (RVs) and tiny homes, secondary solar panels offer versatile energy solutions, powering essential equipment, appliances, and amenities. This accessibility to sustainable energy empowers users to embrace eco-friendly practices, even in remote or mobile settings. Furthermore, with the abundance of self-learning resources available online, more individuals are acquiring the necessary skills to harness solar energy affordably and responsibly, driving further demand for secondary solar panels.

What are some challenges you face?

In recent months, one of our major challenges has been the plummeting prices of new solar panels. However, we remain hopeful that once the supply chain stabilizes or tariffs slow down the influx of inexpensive panels, the reuse market will regain momentum. One challenge arises from the rapid advancement of higher-wattage panels. While solar panels typically boast a lifespan of 30 years or more, technological progress often prompts their replacement within a decade, primarily due to the evolution of panel wattage. For instance, a decade ago, installations commonly featured 200-watt panels, whereas today, 650-watt panels are becoming increasingly prevalent. This trend further lowers the value of used panels in the resale market.

Moreover, expanding our market reach internationally poses another set of challenges. When selling internationally, caution must be exercised to ensure responsible waste management and compliance with regulations, given the logistical and economic complexities involved. Additionally, shipping costs often significantly reduce profit margins, making it difficult to sell panels internationally at competitive prices. Nonetheless, despite the slim margins, we remain committed to expanding the market, recognizing the significant impact it can have, particularly in providing essential energy access to underserved communities. For example, a 250-watt panel may seem insignificant to some, but it can power a small dwelling in a developing nation, providing vital electricity for homes. This underscores the transformative potential of reused panels, not just in reducing waste but also in improving lives and fostering sustainable development.

Furthermore, the lack of provisions for recycled or refurbished panels in incentives and policies like the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) presents another challenge. This absence limits the adoption of used panels in new projects, due to insurance constraints resulting from shorter warranty periods compared to new panels. Nonetheless, there's hope for future incentives or tax breaks to encourage the use of recycled used panels as the demand for sustainable energy solutions continues to grow.

Who do you think is responsible for overseeing the decommissioning of panels in an environmentally responsible manner?

The primary responsibility for overseeing the decommissioning of solar panels lies with stakeholders, particularly owners or decision-makers. They engage contractors, authorize projects, and determine whether panels are repowered or disposed of. Understanding the costs involved, including labor expenses and recycling costs, is crucial for these decision-makers. As more companies embrace responsible practices and commit to recycling, it sets a positive example for others. Social influence and public pressure drive this change, motivating companies to choose sustainable options and maintain their reputation. Despite challenges, proactive measures and transparent decision-making can position companies as sustainability pioneers, leading to a more environmentally conscious future.

What role do you think #education plays in encouraging sustainable practices in the solar panel industry?

I believe that education is paramount in our industry, especially among developers and large-scale companies. Decision makers have to understand the significance of sustainable choices and the options available. That is why I am always eager to share information and engage in conversations to spread awareness. Moreover, educating consumers is vital, as many are unaware of the option to purchase used solar panels and the benefits they offer. By providing this knowledge, we can empower more individuals to embrace solar energy, whether for off-grid or on-grid applications. Ultimately, education plays a significant role in advancing sustainability initiatives and enabling access to renewable energy solutions.

Summary

FabTech's dedication to sustainability in the solar industry sets a commendable example. Through their focus on reuse and recycling, they not only minimize waste but also expand access to clean energy solutions. Their proactive efforts pave the way for a more sustainable future, encouraging other companies to adopt responsible practices in the renewable energy sector.

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