solar panel waste
Photo: Erika P. Rodriguez

What do you do with your solar panels when they are past their use by date? In the case of the Victorian Government you commission a study to find the best solution.

Product stewardship consultancy Equilibrium has been engaged by Sustainability Victoria to examine the options for dealing with a looming solar PV waste issue.

As part of the initiative, the consultancy is reaching out for input from solar manufacturers, installers, project developers, the energy industry, peak bodies and others to inform the development of options.

An online survey is being conducted seeking stakeholder views.

Solar PV panels and associated equipment including energy storage systems, isolators and inverters have been on the Federal Government radar as a product category potentially requiring a formal stewardship scheme, managing director of Equilibrium, Nick Harford told The Fifth Estate.

“The core issue has been identified for some time now with the growth of solar PV panel use in Australia,” he said. “There will be a time when the end of life issue has to be managed.”

Environment minister Josh Frydenberg announced last year the Solar PV was among the product categories being examined as part of the federal government’s ongoing Review of the Product Stewardship Act.

Sustainability Victoria’s commissioning of the consultancy to scope out the options is an initiative that relates to the federal interest and is also being undertaken on behalf of all the state and territory governments.

Mr Harford said that the states and territories are responding to the growing volume of e-waste, including solar PV equipment, with moves to tighten regulatory controls on e-waste being sent to landfill.

Product stewardship possibilities are being examined across the supply chain, including manufacturers, distributors and installers, Mr Harford said.

The end goal is to see the parties in the supply chain “take some responsibility” at end-of life.

Mr Harford said most of the more recent panels have an expected lifespan of 15 to 20 years. Older models may have a similar lifespan – and some will already be reaching the end of their life.

Reclaim PV, in Adelaide, has already built a business on recycling PV panels. It was started by Clive Fleming and David Galloway in 2014, spun out of their company Solar Maintenance and Renewable Technologies (SMART).

“We saw the need for the maintenance of solar. We saw a lot of sales happening but not a lot of after sales stuff, there was a vacant space,” Mr Fleming told The Lead South Australia.

The company has been lobbying state and federal governments to see panels included in recycling regulations.

It is also working with PV Manufacturers and researchers from Flinders University for NanoScale Science and Technology, through their NannoConnect program.

The company does not recirculate panels. They are dismantled using a pyrolysis process that removes glues and recovers glass, aluminium, solar cells and contacts.

“We’re trying to value-add to the cells so they can be reused – not as solar panels  – but in new self powered products,” Mr Fleming said.

The company estimates that around 100,000 to 150,000 panels a year need replacing in Australia.

“It’s not as simple as finding solar panels that are broken and recycling them, there are undiagnosed systems out there and all these solar installation companies are now turning to servicing and that’s bringing in more diagnoses,” Mr Fleming said.

“It’s going to be steady for the next 15 years and then it’s going to ramp up into the millions every year needing to come off the roofs.”

Mr Galloway said the manufacturers see recycling of solar PV as a cost, so the company must work with that perception.

“We’re trying to set it up now so there’s an easy gradient into it so that when it becomes a big problem, the infrastructure is there,” he said.

“If we don’t, and it escalates, we have to look to catch up to a waste problem which came out of a good green carbon offsetting initiative.”

Mr Harford said there is also potential for redeployment and refurbishment of PV panels and associated equipment such as isolators and inverters.

“That is one of the things the study is looking at.”

Current practices and emerging approaches overseas will also inform the study. Currently in Europe, solar PV equipment is covered under the European waste directives around e-waste, and diverted from landfill.

Solar panels were added to the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive in 2012.

There is a key difference though in the Australian PV market in that there is a generally high take-up of residential rooftop installations, whereas in Europe PV tends to be larger industrial installations, Mr Harford said.

In terms of what is in solar PV panels that can be recovered, Mr Harford said that while they are a “very exciting and advanced technology” the actual units are a “relatively simple form of construction” in terms of materials.

Resources embodied in PV include layers of glass, adhesives, film layers, the solar cells themselves, cabling and the associated framework, which is often aluminium.

Many of these materials, such as aluminium or electrical cabling, already have established recycling pathways.

Inverters and isolators have a makeup that is similar to more generalised electronic equipment, according to anecdotal evidence, Mr Harford said.

There is already a large Australian industry in electronics recycling, including recycling driven by schemes such as the federal National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme and private sector initiatives such as MobileMuster.

A report by the International Renewable Energy Agency on end-of-life management for solar photovoltaic panels estimated that by the end of 2016, global PV waste streams would have reached over 40,000 metric tonnes globally – a figure set to skyrocket to up to six million tonnes of waste annually by 2050.

The report identified a significant value stream in terms of recovering the resources in panels at end-of-life. By 2030, the researchers estimated, recovery of raw materials could be valued at up to US$450 million in 2016 terms, and equal the quantity of raw materials needed to manufacture approximately 60 million new panels.

Chief executive of the Smart Energy Council, John Grimes, told The Fifth Estate that having a full lifecycle approach for solar PV is a good idea.

A product stewardship approach would also help reduce emissions associated with the solar PV lifecycle.

“Anything we can do to close the loop in terms of the amount of resources recovered is positive,” Mr Grimes said.

“The reality is that in the next decade, as solar ramps up, there will be a large volume of solar [equipment] at the end of its useful life. We should be thinking about it now.”

  • The stakeholder survey on solar PV stewardship is open until COB Monday August 27. Access the survey here.

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  1. It’s a big issue. The nuclear industry (whether for power or research) has a cradle to grave policy it has to keep – hence the need for an intermediate level waste store for Australia for the use of uranium fuel – so the renewable industry needs the same thing. Electronic waste alone is massive and when solar panels and wind turbines pass their use by date that’s a lot of metal and electronic waste that needs to be dealt with.