It’s time to think ahead about recycling PV panels, writes Emily Gentilini of Arup. Manufacturers, policymakers, investors and consumers must all take part in finding a solution.

Solar photovoltaic technology is playing a pivotal role in Australia’s necessary transition to a renewable and sustainable economy. In 2018, Australia hit 10GW of installed capacity and installations per month have been steadily increasing in recent years, driven largely by the increasing cost competitiveness of PV and dominated by building-applied panels.

While this growth in clean energy is to be encouraged, there are negative impacts that need to be considered. The International Renewable Energy Agency has estimated that 300,000 to 450,000 tonnes of PV waste will have been generated in Australia by 2040 and Griffith University researchers have put this value at 1.5 million tonnes by 2050.

This will be a significant challenge for local governments which have to deal with the potentially toxic waste and the associated stockpiling and dumping. The consumption of virgin materials, energy requirements and production emissions of the traditional supply chain model for PV are also not compatible with a sustainable economy.

However, these challenges present an opportunity for the PV industry to capture value that is being lost to these landfills and stockpiles. And this is a multimillion-dollar opportunity. Researchers have predicted the value of a panel recycling industry in Australia in 2032 to hit the $100 million mark. Critical metals such as tellurium, cadmium, indium and silver represent significant value in the panel waste, despite their low volume. Materials could be used to make more panels: one study estimates that by recovering components from 1,000 used panels, about 422 new PV panels can be produced.

To unlock this value, a consistent approach across states and territories, and across the supply chain, is required.

Circular economy

A key concept for this approach is the circular economy, which at its heart is about decoupling economic growth from resource consumption. It covers improved recovery of materials through recycling, but also looks earlier in the supply chain to change the way products are designed, used and maintained.

In the report Circular PV: Circular Business Models for Australia’s Solar Photovoltaics Industry, Arup envisaged a circular PV industry. Arup used the ReSOLVE Framework strategies (developed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, SUN and McKinsey Centre for Business and Environment) to assess the current supply chain for PV in Australia and identify recommendations to close material loops in the industry.

The report looked closely at five circular business models (CBMs) – product and process design, sharing platforms, product as a service, refurbish and maintain, and recycling facility – and how they could be applied.

Opportunities and existing initiatives were identified all along the supply chain – from increasing the modularity and standardisation of design and introduction of materials’ passports or labelling, to increasing the utilisation of panels through sharing, renting and clever software solutions. Researchers at UNSW are even looking to innovate around recovery by introducing distributed micro-factories that process e-waste locally.

To facilitate the shift to a circular economy through these business models and the ReSOLVE strategies, the Arup report makes several recommendations for industry, policymakers and investors. These include: 

  • The whole industry working together to enable standardisation, coordination and collaboration for the business models. 
  • Policymakers fostering a supportive regulatory, research and business environment for circular business models across all states and territories, including implementing a scheme under the Product Stewardship Act. Design of such a scheme is being led by Sustainability Victoria and anticipated to start this year. 
  • Business demonstrating leadership through feasibility studies and pilot projects, especially through collaborations. 
  • Investors developing their understanding of the circular economy and increasing support for CBMs and related R&D. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency’s recent $15 million in funding for panel recycling projects is an important part of this.

Details of the recommendations are available in the full report on Arup.com 

Arup is also researching the circular economy for lithium-ion batteries, which are expected to become another waste stream problem.

Emily Gentilini is an engineer in Arup’s Environment and Resources team, focusing on infrastructure sustainability, climate resilience and the circular economy.