The amount of PV modules which are to be decommissioned is anticipated to increase rapidly in the coming years as the early adopters of the solar boom begin to consider replacing their system for a new one.

The challenge of dealing with components such as PV modules when they reach end-of-life will become a critical issue. Without proper policies and procedures in place most will end up in landfill, which poses a threat as some technologies contain toxic substances.

The number of PV modules installed is rapidly increasing. A 2016 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that by 2050 there could be up to 78 million tonnes of waste from PV modules globally, with the potential for about $US15 billion of revenue from recycled materials.

The IRENA report investigated two possible scenarios to forecast PV module waste: regular loss, which assumes a 30-year lifetime for panels, and early loss, which takes account of “infant”, “mid-life” and “wear-out” failures before a 30-year lifespan.

Assuming a best-case scenario of regular loss, there will still be 60 million tonnes of waste globally by 2050 from PV modules alone. In comparison, about 67 million tonnes of all waste is generated each year in Australia.

Panel particulars

Although there is a wide variety of PV module technologies available on the global market, the structure and components of the most commonly deployed (crystalline) modules are all relatively similar.

Modules are constructed from several components bonded together and about 90% of these materials (by weight) can be recovered to be used in other industrial sectors: aluminium, glass, solar cells, plastics and metals such as silver, lead, copper and cadmium. Non-silicon-based modules have an even greater recovery rate of up to 98%. So why are we not recycling all of our PV modules when so much of the material can be recovered?

Recycling modules is complex, quite expensive and a relatively immature industry. While some of the components such as the glass and aluminium frame are fairly easy to reclaim, the costs involved with separating the encapsulant, solar cells and metals are much greater, in addition to the other costs such as an electrician uninstalling modules and transporting them to a recycling plant. However, as is the case with all industrial technologies the costs will only decrease as the process becomes simpler, more efficient and value chains are established for the recycled materials.

Around the world

Some countries have begun implementing recycling processes. ENF Solar, a company providing PV information to suppliers and customers, has a list of 54 recycling service companies worldwide. The relative success of PV recycling in Europe has stemmed from introducing PV-specific legislation under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive. From 2014, all manufacturers who supply to any country in the European market are required to be responsible for the disposal and recycling of modules, including all costs.

In Australia Reclaim PV Recycling, founded in 2014 and based in Adelaide, launched the country’s first commercial solar module recycling plant in mid-2019 and collects up to a thousand modules a week. At this stage they only deal with Tier 1 manufacturers and Clean Energy Council-accredited electricians but plan to expand as their operations become more efficient at a reduced cost. Other companies claim to recycle PV but GSES hasn’t had a chance yet to confirm their services.

Victoria has banned the disposal of electronic waste, which includes televisions, computers and all components of a PV system including PV modules “designed for the generation … of an electric current”. The Victorian Government estimates Category F (leisure and PV) will increase from 14,575 tonnes in 2015 to 46,785 tonnes in 2035, most of which will be growth in PV module waste.

Plan now for later

This is a great start but there is still much that needs to be done. There are currently 3,140 different models of PV modules on the CEC approved list, from 77 manufacturers. In order to be prepared for future developments Australia needs to develop policy frameworks and encourage stakeholders’ ongoing research and development initiatives. Funding could be an issue until efficient technologies and value chains are established, which is why stakeholders need to pool resources and knowledge to accelerate recycling before we are see a massive national PV waste problem.

A logical path would be to build upon the Australian Government’s National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme, which was established in 2011 to provide householders and small businesses with access to industry-funded collection and recycling services for televisions and computers. Australia has the Product Stewardship Act that mandates how e-waste is dealt with and PV modules are planned to be included. The clean energy transition is too important to be jeopardised by poor planning, so let’s get this right.