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A Circular Solar Economy: Women Leading the Way

December 20, 2023 Solar panel in a grassy field with an electric bulb above it made from clouds.

The solar energy revolution, a sweeping force across America for years, is now gaining momentum at an unprecedented pace. President Joe Biden in 2022 made several significant White House goals regarding expanding domestic solar manufacturing to reach 22.5 gigawatts of solar capacity while in office.[1] These transparent acknowledgments of support and passed legislation towards furthering a path to clean energy are substantial feats for the environmental movement across America.

However, have you ever asked yourself how much waste might be produced by these numerous manufacturing and implementation projects? Or even one step further, where will this waste all end up?

Renewable energy challenge

Research indicates that by 2050, a staggering 78 million tons of photovoltaic waste is projected to accumulate, further burdening our already overloaded landfills.[2] Moreover, China’s implementation of the “National Sword” policy in 2018 ceased the importation of recyclable material into their borders, imposing additional pressure on US landfills. Our shift towards clean energy must prioritize sustainability throughout this transition and refrain from worsening existing environmental issues. This has been the goal of circular economics for many years, and the US must adopt these strategies for a just and sustainable renewable energy future.

Thus, the CEO of an Atlanta-based solar panel recycling start-up, Emilie Oxel O’Leary, has stepped up to the task of proactively addressing these challenges within the United States and Internationally. Ms. O’Leary will be a speaker at the UNC Cleantech Summit on March 21 – 22, 2024.

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to address some of these concerns and delve into the mission of Ms. O’Leary’s woman-owned business in greater detail. I was particularly excited to hear about her journey and the motivation behind Green Clean Solar as a fellow woman interested in the renewable energy space. Ms. O’Leary graciously shared her unique and captivating story, illustrating how she attained the high achievements she enjoys today.

Career path to mitigate waste

For starters, what surprised me most was Ms. O’Leary’s major in her undergraduate career at Kent State University. Ms. O’Leary was a Fashion major. You would not have expected this, right? With Ms. O’Leary’s entrepreneurial spirit, she always saw herself leading her own business. Her career gained momentum when she assumed the department store manager role. Shortly after, she was recruited to work at the Atlanta Olympics, where her responsibilities included hiring translators for athletes worldwide. A few years later, she pursued an MBA in International Business, achieving her long-standing goal of establishing her own business. This venture, known as Oxel Company, LLC, specializes in marketing and consulting services in Atlanta.

During this period, she met a man whose business primarily centered around construction projects, including ventures in solar projects that commenced in 2015. Recognizing the potential of the solar energy market and enjoying her time working towards a net-zero carbon emission future, she was driven to start a business with this man. The business, named Sunshine Solar, was launched in 2016. Their very first project was installing solar panels onto a carport that was affiliated with the new Atlanta stadium. The success derived from this project opened new avenues for the company, including rooftop solar installations for Amazon, collaborations with military bases across the US for various installations, and the expansion of projects to capacities of 50-100 megawatts across the country.

Yet, as projects expanded, Ms. O’Leary noticed the massive amounts of waste that accumulated with them. It troubled her that their initiative was aimed at promoting planet conservation, yet they were disposing of tons of waste into the Earth’s landfills. She sold the remaining equity in Sunshine Solar and began her new journey focused on minimizing and mitigating the waste generated by solar projects.

In 2022, Ms. O’Leary initiated Green Clean Solar which, within a year, has successfully recycled over 230 tons of solar panels and lifecycle waste. Furthermore, Green Clean Solar offers consulting services on ESG performance to help companies understand their “Environmental Metrics.” Through this initiative, Ms. O’Leary has bridged the recycling and solar industries, collecting data from across the nation, with a particular focus on the Southeast, to determine the most effective methods for creating a circular solar energy market. Green Clean Solar has discovered that personalizing each project is most effective considering variations in location, types of materials used and shipped, as well as the diverse needs and requirements of local recycling facilities. Recently, the company embarked on a substantial project in Hawaii involving the repurposing of cardboard from more than 93,000 boxes shipped to the island that contained panels and other equipment for solar projects. This cardboard was then supplied to landscapers in Maui who needed it for planting fruit trees.

What struck me most is how her innovative idea has the potential to give rise to an entirely new industry in the US, generating a considerable number of jobs and opportunities for individuals to engage in the sustainability sector. I find her story inspiring and encouraging for new generations to become involved in this hands-on, impactful approach to a circular economy.

A new future

When asked what her vision is for the future of Green Clean Solar, Ms. O’Leary expressed enthusiasm regarding the company’s potential. As Ms. O’Leary regularly receives international calls seeking her services, she has been compelled to first concentrate on her mission in America, fine-tuning and perfecting her business, with the ultimate objective of expanding her business globally. Ms. O’Leary hopes that her mission will inspire others to envision a new future for America’s circular economy and looks to younger generations to lead this path.

This article was written by Victoria Farella, a UNC Cleantech Corner Initiative intern.



  1. “Fact Sheet: President Biden Takes Bold Executive Action to Spur Domestic Clean Energy Manufacturing.” The White House, June 6, 2022. president-biden-takes-bold-executive-action-to-spur-domestic-clean-energy- manufacturing/.
  2. Chowdhury, Md. Shahariar, Kazi Sajedur Rahman, Tanjia Chowdhury, Narissara Nuthammachot, Kuaanan Techato, Md. Akhtaruzzaman, Sieh Kiong Tiong, Kamaruzzaman Sopian, and Nowshad Amin. “An Overview of Solar Photovoltaic Panels’ End-of-Life Material Recycling.” Energy Strategy Reviews 27 (January 2020): 100431.

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