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After many years of innovation and investment, modern recycling equipment provides a host of cost-effective, environmentally sustainable ways to turn what was once waste into useful products. In many cases, recycled materials are cost- and quality-competitive with other sources.

The same has not been true of solar energy, which has traditionally been seen as a luxurious indulgence of sustainability initiatives, rather than as a way to save money – or at least break even – while replacing less environmentally desirable fossil and other fuels. But, after its own cycle of creativity and effort – bolstered significantly by recent government financial support – the solar energy industry is closer than ever to breaking through as a technology that makes economic, as well as environmental, sense.

Frank Middleton, vice president of marketing for Opel Solar, Inc. of Shelton, Connecticut, said that grid parity, the Holy Grail of the solar energy industry, may be broadly achieved within the next year or two. Grid parity refers to the comparison between the cost of solar-generated electricity and that produced from other sources.

Right now, solar energy generated by photovoltaic systems that convert sunlight into electricity costs about $2 per watt, Middleton said. That’s not competitive with the least expensive conventional sources, such as the coal-fired utility power plants that are common in many areas of the United States. But it’s down from about $4.50 per watt from two years ago, Middleton said. “And we expect that to continue,” he added.

Photovoltaic is already approximately equal to the cost of conventionally-generated electricity in some places where electricity is particularly costly, including Italy, Middleton said. It may achieve grid parity in Southern California sometime during 2010, he said, adding that the rest of the world will follow as soon as 2012.

Opel Solar, Inc.

Thus far, the solar energy industry has been largely supported by government subsidies. Middleton said Japan and Germany kicked off a major round of innovation and interest in the industry in 2005 by instituting incentives. He said that is enough to help things get started, even though it won’t work long term. “We need to be able to generate electricity from PV panels and compete without the need of subsidies,” he said.

Opel sells high-efficiency concentrating photovoltaic panels that generate almost twice as much electricity as conventional solar panels. These are suitable for large utility installations generating megawatts or hundreds of kilowatts of power. The Company also sells trackers, which are assemblies on which conventional panels can be mounted and then automatically turned to face directly toward the sun as it travels across the sky.

Trackers can increase efficiency of conventional panels by 20 percent to 45 percent, and may find uses in recycling-related applications such as creating solar energy installations on covered-over landfills. “That is a perfect application for solar energy, especially mounted on trackers,” said Middleton. “It’s land that can be reused to generate electricity.”

Solar energy and the recycling industry occupy the same space – finding commercial opportunities in the drive to improve sustainability and reduce the impact of human activities on the environment. As such, they together represent an opportunity to achieve something of a double whammy when it comes to cost reduction and green business. That opportunity resides in employing the sun’s energy to power recycling equipment, and it’s still very much a wide-open niche in the recycling world.

BigBelly Solar

At the moment, only a couple of companies manufacture standard products that marry the environmental benefits of solar energy and recycling. BigBelly Solar of Needham, Massachusetts, has installed its solar-powered recycling and trash compactor collector stations in cities and other venues across the United States. Richard Kennelly, vice president of marketing, said the combination addresses a specific problem for municipalities and similar entities.

For instance, Kennelly points to the city of Philadelphia where, until last April, there were no downtown sidewalk recycling containers. “If you or I were walking down the sidewalk in Philly and had a can or soda bottle, you’d just put it in the trash,” Kennelly said. The obstacle was that it cost too much to drive a collection vehicle to each container numerous times per week to empty the container and transport the materials to a recycling station. So Philadelphians had no choice but to send recyclable materials to the landfill.

However, by replacing 700 55-gallon litter baskets in downtown with 500 solar-powered trash compactors, each capable of holding 200 gallons of compacted waste, the city was able to save enough on trash collection trips to a recycling program. “They went from 17 collections per week to 5 collections,” Kennelly said.

The 210 recycling containers placed next to the trash compactors don’t compact the materials placed within them. Kennelly said that soda bottles and cans and other springy recyclable materials aren’t suitable for compacting in this application. However, by saving on waste collection trips, the solar-powered trash compactors make the un-compacted recycling collection trips economically viable.

Solar has yet to achieve a noticeable presence in other areas of recycling. Kennelly said that, while something such as a solar-power car crusher is technically feasible, it doesn’t make as much sense as the solar-powered compactors. “A lot of recycling equipment is located in buildings where there’s readily available A/C power,” he noted. “So most things plug in.” The compactor-collector stations, on the other hand, may be located on downtown streets or other locales far from any available connection to the power grid.

In 2010, BigBelly Solar plans to introduce a larger line of solar-powered compactors. These, in sizes from 2 cubic yards to 30 cubic yards, will be marketed with the assistance of their strategic partner, Waste Management, to shopping centers and other compactor users. Kennelly expects positive results from their move into a larger market. “Everyone’s trying to find ways to save money, and the BigBelly is a cost-saver, particularly if you’re trying to introduce recycling by reducing the number of collections you do,” he said. “It ends up being a very effective way to achieve recycling and waste management goals.”


Big Belly Solar Opel Solar, Inc. Marathon Equipment Solar Array Ventures, Inc. First Solar