A solar panel recycling crisis is looming and the industry is now rushing to clean up its act. The Circular PV Alliance (CPVA) is one such industry-led initiative set up to help stop panels going to waste. The group’s cofounders share their story.
It started with a couple of photos of some discarded PV panels taken at the tip in July 2021. Photos were taken by Dr Nick Engerer from Solcast and posted to LinkedIn. It got a strong response and the comments kept coming. The idea that something as useful as a PV panel could be simply thrown away made us feel ashamed but also motivated. The panels look okay. Are they really damaged? Could they be given a second life? The Circular PV Alliance was born.
The Circular PV Alliance’s (CPVA) mission is to realise the full environmental, economic and social benefits of solar energy by supporting the Australian solar energy sector transition into a circular economy.
First, we took a good hard look at the scale of the problem. Around one third of all Australian homes have a solar PV system on their roof. At the end of 2021, this equated to more than 3 million individual systems across Australia, or around 70 million solar panels. Even if only a small percentage of these are replaced each year, it’s clear there’s a lot of used panels coming off rooftops.
Insights from solar panel installers and recyclers on the ground is that panels are being removed from rooftops and replaced somewhere between seven and 10 years. This also poses some critical questions regarding the “green” credentials of solar energy – a solar panel is not realising the full potential of its environmental benefit if it is only generating electricity for seven years of a 30 year lifespan!
According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), waste PV modules in Australia are expected to weigh in at 100,000 tonnes by 2035 and between 300,000 and 450,000 tonnes by 2040. Some state governments have moved to ban PV panels from entering landfill, such as Victoria which introduced new e-waste legislation in 2019. Sussan Ley, the Federal Minister for the Environment, used a National Press Club speech in June this year to issue a warning to Australia’s solar industry to get cracking on an industry-wide approach to recycling PV panels which, she said, loomed as “a landfill nightmare.”
The alliance was born
CPVA is a grass-roots organisation founded by the solar energy industry. We quickly found ourselves asking questions such as “if not us, then who? If not now, when?” and meeting weekly to work on a solution. As a practical group, it seemed that a good first step was to just get started. A mini motto of “get them, test them and use them” quickly emerged, with the “them”, of course, being discarded solar panels. A micro-pilot was born in October 2021 with the intent of seeing what we could learn from our trial and scaling up if things looked promising. Working groups were also formed to look at the market for used solar panels, and to explore certification standards and tracing technologies that could work hand-in-hand with the testing pilot to give consumers some assurance about the quality of a secondhand product.
We wanted a small batch of panels to start our micro-pilot and we were spoilt for choice. A selection of 14 panels were chosen from a large stash collected by a solar installer in regional NSW. The idea was to select a cross section of panel brands in varying states of appearance. Fortunately, this batch had some in excellent condition and others clearly a bit more “weathered”. The idea was to gain real-life representation of the likely condition of panels coming off a roof and make the test as practical and insightful as possible.
Since the aim was to test panels for re-use (either in Australia or overseas), we settled on checking four things:
- Do they pass a basic visual inspection?
- Are the panels safe to use?
- How much power can they still output?
- Are they damaged in a way that can’t be seen with the naked eye?
Initial visual inspection was done by Megan Jones in Dubbo. Panels were then sent to PV Lab in Canberra. Here they were tested for safety using a wet leakage test, power output using international standard equipment and the quality of the panels were tested using an electroluminescence test.
The results were encouraging. Of our initial test batch, 10 of the 14 panels were suitable for re-use. All had somewhat reduced output power (5-18 per cent), but only four had micro-cracking that would prevent their re-use. There were even two panels with no micro-cracks – even after years of use and storage in a warehouse. This means that it is possible for a panel to be in use on a rooftop system, removed, transported and tested without damaging the internals. When these panels were removed there was no process in place to minimise damage to the units, or any special crates used for transport or storage, which only goes to demonstrate the durability of old panels!
The final step in our micro-pilot will be to use the panels and we are in the process of identifying a site and an installer to help with this. We’ll also be monitoring the panels closely over the coming months and years so watch this space!
Our next steps will be to install the tested panels to see how they perform during their second life. This will provide useful information to inform further testing programs. In parallel, the alliance will continue to build on our important early insights gained from the micro pilot project and continue to engage and collaborate with industry participants. We are particularly focused on the re-use roadmap including an expanded panel testing project, certification, tracing technologies and building a reused panel database. If you would like to find out more, contact the alliance through our website: circularpv.com.au.
Story by Michelle McCann, co-founder and director of PV Lab Australia, and technical advisor to the Circular PV Alliance.
Additional input by Circular PV Alliance founding members and board members Megan Jones and Steve Owen, Gokce Yimaz (APAC manager of inavita) and Laura Jones (senior analyst in the ANU battery storage and grid integration program).