Sustainably Manufactured Solar Panels and EV Batteries Will be Critical to Meet Clean Energy and Climate Goals
by Clint Wilder
In the past year, the U.S. has been building out its manufacturing capacity for electric vehicles, EV batteries, and solar panels at historic rates. After years of generally ceding such production to China and other nations, the U.S. has now taken a significant leap forward in clean-tech manufacturing – so much so that officials in countries like Canada and Australia are clamoring for similar industrial policies to avoid falling behind the U.S.
This dramatic ramp-up will result in an unprecedented demand for raw materials such as lithium, cobalt, and silicon – and the sourcing and processing of those materials has raised some controversy about their environmental and human rights impacts. That has created a big potential market opportunity for recycled, refurbished, and remanufactured components for the clean energy industries.
It's still very early days in the nascent sector of sustainably manufactured solar PV panels. However, solar panel remanufacturing has seen significant activity as of late, as companies begin to lay the groundwork for scaleup which will make re-use cost-competitive with manufacturing new panels./p>
In early June, BBB Industries’ TERREPOWER division announced that solar components remanufacturing at its sprawling Sparta, Tennessee factory is now fully operational. TERREPOWER is the only company of its kind that’s active in remanufacturing both solar PV components and EV batteries. The Sparta facility has the capacity to churn out more than 125,000 refurbished solar panels a year. Ontility is TERREPOWER’s brand of comprehensive solar lifecycle solutions and energy storage systems. Ontility was established in 2009. It was acquired by BBB Industries in 2021.
With solar, TERREPOWER is clearly betting on the future. Most panels have a 25-to-30-year lifespan; nearly half of all the solar power capacity in the U.S. (utility-scale, residential, commercial, and community solar) has come online in the past five years. Nonetheless, the volume of panels coming offline in the U.S. by the end of this decade would be enough to cover 3,000 football fields, according to a National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimate. And it’s only going to increase; U.S. solar installations have grown from about 5,000 megawatts (MW) of installed capacity in 2010 to more than 150,000 MW today.
Sustainably manufactured products are nothing new to TERREPOWER, a division of Daphne, Alabama-based BBB Industries. Founded in 1987, BBB is an industry leader in the sustainable manufacturing of vehicle components for the automotive aftermarket. BBB launched TERREPOWER in 2021 to bring that expertise – and a great deal of factory capacity around the U.S. – to the clean energy sector.
Later this year, TERREPOWER, and its Ontility brand, will be investing in solar recycling. This will enhance their ability to manage the complete lifecycle of solar panels at a lower cost by having both solar panel remanufacturing and recycling under one roof.
TERREPOWER has built out capacity for battery work at facilities in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, and Tennessee. The two Southern locations are in or near what clean energy pundit Canary Media calls the Battery Belt, a six-state region where some two dozen new or expanded EV or EV battery factories have been announced in the past nine months. And it’s not just the EV sector. South Korea-based solar giant Hanwha Qcells kicked off 2023 with the announcement of a new $2.5 billion solar panel factory in Dalton, Georgia, which combined with an existing plant will make the company the largest solar manufacturer in the U.S.
The current level of policy incentives and private investment represent the largest commitment to building a U.S. clean energy economy in the 20+ years that I’ve been covering the clean tech industry. Many of the developments we see in the U.S. today are directions that co-author Ron Pernick and I called for in our second book, Clean Tech Nation: How the U.S. Can Lead in the New Global Economy, more than a decade ago. It’s too glib to say better late than never. We know full well that such profound economic transitions take time. Nonetheless, it’s very encouraging to watch this unprecedented commitment to clean tech manufacturing, investment, and job creation finally unfolding in 2023 America.
But this whole transition can’t happen without manufacturers meeting the soaring demand for raw materials for their American-made EVs and solar panels. Whether through governmental regulation like the kind we see unfolding in Europe or pure market initiative like the kind being displayed by TERREPOWER and others, to reduce materials demand and their associated environmental and human impacts, the re-use of EV and solar components must play an increasingly larger role in our transition to a truly sustainable clean energy future.
Clint Wilder is a veteran writer, industry analyst, and author who has covered the clean energy, circular economy, and sustainability sectors for two decades. He is co-author of two books: The Clean Tech Revolution: The Next Big Growth and Investment Opportunity (HarperCollins 2007) and Clean Tech Nation: How the U.S. Can Lead in the New Global Economy (HarperCollins 2012).