There is a problem piling up on Australian rooftops. But recycling used or broken solar panels represents a lucrative new market, too.
Australia is a world leader in rooftop solar installations: in recent years it has built new renewable energy infrastructure at a rate ten times faster than the global per-capita average. But while Australia rides a wave of renewables, its solar industry is facing a looming waste problem as first-generation solar panels near the end of their working life.
A mind-boggling 100,000 tonnes of used solar panels in Australia could be headed to landfill by 2035 unless budding solar recyclers step up to the challenge. What’s more, the projected surge in discarded solar panels will probably arrive sooner than expected, says Pablo Dias, a renewable energy engineer at the University of NSW. This is because the actual average lifetime of solar panels in Australia is around 15 to 20 years, not the usual 25 to 30 years that manufacturers guarantee.
It’s not that they are lasting less than we expect them to, says Dias, but rather that solar panels are easily damaged during transport, installation or by hail storms, and people opt to replace older modules with higher-efficiency ones. Large solar farms built a decade ago and early rooftop solar units will soon be reaching the end of their working lives, too.
This means the next few years are crunch time for Australia’s solar industry – which is racing to work out how to recycle solar panels at scale from far-flung renewable energy projects located hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres from the first city-based recycling facilities.
“It’s crucial that Australia sets itself up today and not when the waste panels arrive,” says Dias, who specialises in e-waste recycling. “If we need to wait for enough volume to ensure profitable business out of this, it will be too late.”
Realising the value
Solar panel recycling companies are popping up all around the country. Although some businesses remain tight-lipped about their patented solar recycling technologies, the value that lies in discarded solar panels is plain to see, albeit hard to get to.
In crystalline solar panels, which dominate the solar industry, light-absorbing solar cells containing silver, copper, high-purity silicon and small amounts of hazardous lead are sandwiched between a front glass panel and a plastic backsheet, and wedged into a recyclable aluminium frame.
Sorting through recycled materials is a costly exercise, though, so recyclers are vying to develop processes to shred, crush or pull apart solar panels and cleanly separate out the component materials.
The solar cell metals are the most valuable components, but just a tiny fraction of the whole panel. Recovering them could yield huge energy savings and environmental benefits, though, because for every kilogram of metal recycled, one less kilogram needs to be mined anew. Same goes for glass and aluminium production.
“This is a hard nut we have to crack,” says Clive Fleming, director of Reclaim PV Recycling, one of several solar panel recycling companies in Australia that have stepped up their operations in recent months.
Fleming says he co-founded Reclaim PV Recycling in 2014 out of sheer necessity. His then-business was maintaining solar panels when, at one job site, he was told to dump the 600 solar panels he had just replaced into landfill. “This was at a time when nobody had had the opportunity to see this problem with such volume,” says Fleming. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘we have to recycle them’.” The challenge was how.
Eight years on, Reclaim PV Recycling has two solar recycling facilities, one each in Adelaide and Brisbane, and Fleming says they are currently recycling around 2,000 panels each week using a modular process that can be expanded to handle more panels as they flow in.
It goes like this: panels stripped of their aluminium frames, junction boxes and cabling are heated to undo the glues which bind the solar cells, glass and conductive metal strips. The glass is separated out before the silicon, copper, silver and lead are extracted using a chemical process. Soon after, they should be able to detach the plastic backsheet from solar cells, too.
“We can probably get closer to 98 or 99% recovery rate soon, I reckon,” says Fleming. And sometimes, he adds, whole solar cells can be recovered intact which, with a bit more tinkering, could be reused in new panels, sacrificing some efficiency compared to newer technologies but saving stacks of energy.
However, while solar panel recycling processes might be strides ahead of efforts to recycle the fibreglass blades of retired wind turbines, the solar industry is still nowhere near where it needs to be in terms of recycling prowess, hamstrung by the lack of national regulation around solar panel recycling that, if implemented, would spur progress, Dias says.
Australia’s fledging solar recycling industry lags behind the European Union, which is a lone pioneer of e-waste regulations for solar panels. Its regulations put the onus back on manufacturers and suppliers to collect and recycle any solar panels they install. So far, Victoria is the only Australian state to ban solar panels being dumped in landfill.
“There’s no legislation to stop them going to landfill in Australia at the moment, except for Victoria, and even then it’s not policed very well,” says Fleming. And with no incentives to encourage users to recycle old solar panels, units are being landfilled by the thousands, he adds. “It’s crazy – it’s criminal.”
That could soon change, if the newly minted federal government follows through on its predecessor’s June 2023 deadline to finalise a long-overdue, nationwide, industry-led product stewardship scheme for solar panels to coordinate waste management processes, similar to how car tyres, televisions and computers are recovered and recycled.
So now is the time to get solar recycling research “out of university walls and into the real world”, says Dias, who is also launching a business to dismantle and recycle solar panels. Like Fleming and Reclaim PV Recycling, Dias has designed a process that works with small waste volumes as a stepping stone for the solar recycling industry, so cost and capacity are no longer hurdles.
The lab-tested process, which produces a concentrated metal mix of silicon, copper, aluminium and silver that can be further refined, and a second mixture of shredded glass and plastic polymer, doesn’t require any special machinery, says Dias, and is “environmentally sound and economically feasible with volumes of as little as one kiloton per year or even less.” That’s equivalent to around 50,000 solar panels.
But getting solar panels off roofs and into recycling facilities remains a major challenge, especially in a country as big as Australia where transport costs are huge. It’s just one reason why Wagga Wagga-based solar panel provider Solar Professionals is setting up facilities in regional NSW where the largest solar farms are located.
“The technology we’ve developed can be put into a container and on the back of the truck, so it’s mobile – we can bring the recycling plant to the panels,” says Nial Finegan, a resource recovery engineer and board advisor for Solar Professionals.
Finegan says the company, backed by recent funding from the NSW Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), began recycling and repurposing solar panels because the solar industry has a “moral obligation” to tackle its waste problem. “If we’re trying to sell clean energy and we say that we’re all about offsetting carbon, it makes a mockery of the industry if we send panels to landfill,” he says.
Solar Professionals, Finegan says, uses a delaminating process that peels apart solar panels without crushing the glass or burning off the plastic backing, which can be recycled, too. It yields streams of unmixed – and therefore high-value – recycled materials, with the unbroken glass used to make new solar panels or build greenhouses. “When you do that, we’ve offset a whole lot of carbon that would have otherwise gone into new glass production,” says Finegan.
But properly maintaining existing panels so they don’t need to be replaced, and repurposing panels that still have more life in them, is key to reduce solar panel waste, too. Both Solar Professionals and Reclaim PV Recycling test and triage panels they receive to see if they can be reused in community projects, schools or small-scale farming because, as Fleming says, “Why recycle something that has another 10 years in it?”
What is really needed to galvanise the industry, say renewable energy experts and solar recycling start-ups, is a national framework for recycling solar panels, one that regulates how the industry manages its waste, specifies quality standards for recycled materials recovered from solar arrays, sets recycling targets, and certifies reputable solar recyclers.
Consistent regulation across Australia to enforce solar panel recycling would also stop panels being transported interstate to dodge landfill bans, says Finegan, a former CEO of EPA Victoria. “We’ve seen that elsewhere in the waste industry: it can be economical to drive waste from Victoria to throw it in a hole in the ground in Queensland. It’s just ridiculous,” he says.
The next three years, and especially the next 12 months, will be crucial, adds Dias, to solidify end-markets for recycled materials recovered from solar panels, particularly the aluminium and glass which make up the bulk of panels by weight. If no market for recycled products exists, there is no real incentive for solar recyclers to optimise their processes to yield separate, pure, high-value materials. Rules around government procurement of products made of recycled materials could help in that regard, says Finegan. Though he also spies a real opportunity for industrial hubs in regional Australia turning recycled materials into new products. “There are spin-off industries that come with this if we get it right,” he says.
Clare Watson is a freelance science journalist based in Wollongong, NSW, specialising in health, medicine and the environment.