Solar Panels and Recycled Silicon

Lynne Kiesling

Silicon is an important input into solar panels, as well as its well-known uses in computer chips. Not surprisingly, silicon prices have risen over the past couple of years.

A couple of weeks ago IBM announced that it has figured out a way to scrub information from waste silicon chips so they can be used in making solar panels:

IBM Corp. is scheduled to announce today that is has developed a way to easily refurbish scrap material left over from the creation of microchips so it can be used in solar energy panels, a process that could save money and help feed the solar industry’s growing appetite for silicon. …

The semiconductor industry imprints patterns on silicon wafers to build the chips used in computers, video games, cell phones and other electronics. A small fraction of these thin silicon discs are scrapped, adding up to more than 3 million wafers discarded worldwide each year, according to industry and IBM estimates.

The scrap wafers, etched with patterns that companies consider intellectual property, are often crushed and sent to landfills.

IBM’s new process uses existing wafer-polishing equipment to erase the patterns, said Thom Jagielski, environmental manager at the IBM chip plant in Burlington, Vt., that developed the technique. He said this allows wafers to be reused for equipment testing and later sold to solar panel manufacturers.

3 million silicon wafers contain enough silicon to make enough solar panels to power 6,000 homes.

Notice how a market price increase, reflecting the relative scarcity of silicon, induced technological change, conservation, recycling, and waste reduction. This dynamic is one of most valuable consequences of market processes.

Just think of how much value we could create if we could unlock this same price-technological change-conservation-recycling-waste reduction dynamic in the retail sale and consumption of electric power. To do that, we need the freedom to choose how much price risk to bear, and to choose the source of our generated power. Retail choice is a crucial driver for technological change and, ultimately, for conservation and energy efficiency.