There are more than 23 million solar panels installed in Australia – one for every man, woman and child in the country – but what’s going to happen to them when they reach end of their life? EcoGeneration talks to a company that thinks it has the answer.

The uptake of solar panels in Australia in the past decade or so has outstripped even the most ambitious predictions. Thanks to the falling prices and generous incentives of the ‘solar boom’, we now have around 1.5 million small-scale solar power systems in the country – the highest number of installations per inhabitant in the world.

But while the solar party has been in full swing since around 2008 (with some legislative ups and downs, obviously), not much thought has been given to the inevitable hangover. Solar panels have a limited lifespan. Sooner or later they will all start to break down or deteriorate or need upgrading, and then we are going to have a very big pile of used panels on our hands. (And safe to say there are a lot of cheap panels out there that are not going to meet their 20- or 25-year performance promises).

So what’s to be done? In an industry that is fundamentally premised on being clean and green, it’s not good enough to send these old panels to landfill. PV modules are largely recyclable – component materials such as glass, aluminium and semiconductors can all be recovered and reused. Nor is it good enough to leave it up to consumers to do the right thing in terms of waste management – the industry, and especially PV producers, needs to take some responsibility for the life cycle of its products.

What we need, then, is a system that makes the collection and treatment of expired modules not just possible, but routine. And we need it before the current trickle of spent panels turns into a flood.

Fortunately, a South Australian company called Reclaim PV Recycling (www.reclaimpv.com) is on the case. Founded in 2014, the company is developing a PV take-back scheme with a network of industry partners and nationwide collection points to enable the reclaiming of components in PV modules.

Reclaim has developed a unique PV recycling system, where components from expired solar panels – including undamaged cells – are recovered and used to make new green products or complete solar panels. The company aims to provide simple options for the collection of decommissioned modules, with easy access for module drop off and collection using existing business networks.

A number of major PV manufacturers have already signed up to the scheme, and Reclaim has worked with a team at Flinders University to develop a scalable model for its business so that its recycling activities can grow in line with projections for the number of modules reaching the end of their lifespans.

We spoke to Clive Fleming and David Galloway, directors of Reclaim PV Recycling, to learn more.

Can you tell us about what Reclaim does, and how the company came to be?

Reclaim PV Recycling is a PV waste management/resource recovery solution. We cover logistics and recycling of PV modules, inverters and – in the not too distant future – batteries. It all started in 2013–14 when our sister company S.M.A.R.T. (Solar Maintenance and Renewable Technologies) was commissioned to remove and replace 600 modules from a location. We were left with the question of what we could do with the decommissioned modules. We exhausted all environmentally positive options with waste management bodies with no success. At that point, we decided there was a definite need for PV waste management, and Reclaim PV was born.

How big is the PV waste management problem in Australia?

It is conservatively estimated that of the 11-plus million modules installed in Australia since 2009, around 8-10 per cent are failing due to manufacturing faults and untested, environmentally deficient components. It is shown that approximately 300,000 modules will need to be disposed of annually leading up to 2030, rapidly increasing in 2035 to an estimated 5,000,000 annually as legacy modules come to their natural end of life. These figures do not include the consumer-led upgrades to newly introduced technologies. For example, 15 x 60 W modules could be replaced with 3 x 300 W modules today.

What’s been happening to failed modules up to now?

Until now, there has been no infrastructure in place to take on the waste that the PV industry is creating. Failed modules are being removed from rooftops and stockpiled in warehouses or ending up in landfill.

What is the state of PV recycling in other countries?

In the EU, there is a company called PV Cycle that has pioneered the establishment of PV recycling logistics throughout the EU and successfully integrated with EU waste legislation. Our model is slightly different, though, as here in Australia our geographic proportions and weather mean we have other challenges to address. We are in talks with Jan Clyncke, the Managing Director of PV Cycle, with intentions of forming a global alliance/relationship in which both companies can gain from sharing R&D and other information.

In recent months we have also been approached by various overseas companies and governments with expressions of interest in our particular operational model.

How does Reclaim’s recycling system work?

A vital component of our operation is logistics. We have the ability to arrange collection of decommissioned modules from any location in Australia. At this point, we are only servicing manufacturers directly. However, we are developing a membership arrangement to roll out for the broader PV industry.

We have two methods for reclaiming PV modules. One method is cell extraction. This method is currently in the R&D phase with Flinders University’s NanoConnect team. The other method is resource recovery and involves a fully functioning technique for dismantling modules and separating the raw elements. A focus for us is to supply locally where we can, providing glass, silicon cells and metals to various manufacturing sectors. This not only creates a resource recovery stream for localised industries, but also provides a positive environmental offset by avoiding landfill and reducing CO2 emissions.

Which solar companies have signed up so far?

We are in dealings with many leading PV module manufacturers and already have agreements in place with Canadian Solar, Suntech, Yingli and Renesola. We will be announcing new agreements throughout 2016, as well as a new membership structure.

Are some PV modules more recyclable than others, and why?

There are a few different types of PV modules. For volume, we are focusing on poly- and monocrystalline modules in our process, but we are developing ways to recycle the other thin-film modules when the volume capacity increases to a viable point for our operation.

Is there commercial value in recycling PV modules, or does the business rely on deals with industry/government?

There is value from both component recovery and the benefit to the environment. Reintroducing the reclaimed elements back into local and global supply chains will help reduce emissions in areas such as silicon manufacturing and glass product manufacturing. Essentially, however, the success of PV recycling will require the involvement of the PV industry as well as state and federal governments. PV recycling is a national waste initiative as much as it is a sensible resource recovery/supply solution, and it needs support in order to be successful.

Whose responsibility is it to ensure PV modules are dealt with correctly at end of life?

We believe that PV modules at end of life are the responsibility of all involved in the production, sale, distribution, transport and installation processes. Recycling PV modules is the solution to avoid landfill and lower the impact of environmental damage when manufacturing.

Do we need some regulation around PV recycling to ensure high recovery rates?

Reclaim is lobbying for change in waste legislation at both a state and federal level. If we look at the European model (which was developed and implemented through PV Cycle), the EU has successfully made adjustments to its waste legislation (WEEE directive), and this has enabled the responsible handling of PV waste.

In Australia, it is the responsibility of the states to manage their waste legislations. We have been in discussions with each state EPA to drive legislative change to include specifics about PV waste within waste management legislation. This takes time, but we have had positive involvement from the state governments at this point and will continue until we have success.

The PV industry also needs to self-regulate, and we are helping this by gaining support of major stakeholders such as the Clean Energy Council, the Solar Council, manufacturers and utility companies. We have had great support from the industry and we are rolling out a new membership structure for Reclaim PV this year.

We are also lobbying for Product Stewardship of PV modules at a federal level, which would essentially mandate the recovery and recycling of modules. We have discussed this with our federal environment minister’s office and this will be a long-term goal of ours.

In the end, it makes sense that a green industry such as the PV solar industry needs to be at the forefront when it comes to managing the waste it generates.