Solar Waste – What’s the state of solar panel recycling?

Solar waste is a currently unavoidable byproduct of Australia’s obsession with solar power. But what do we do with these panels when they reach end of life? Let’s take a look at solar panel recycling and what the current climate is, helped by a recent ABC Radio show about the topic.

Solar Waste and solar panel recycling – a primer.

We wrote about recycling solar panels back in January, but a new interview with Reclaim PV (who we talk about in the other article too) has some more information about this critical issue. 

A radio program by the ABC had some very interesting thoughts on the topic – you can listen to it here

The panel included:

  • Jeremy Hunt, solar panel installer
  • Professor Rodney Stewart, Griffith University
  • Clive Fleming, solar panel recycler, Reclaim PV
  • Andrew Gilhooly, Sunpower

With two million houses in Australia now enjoying the fruits of renewable energy and installing solar on their rooftop, their lifespan of 10-15-20 years is now starting to slowly fizzle out, especially for the early adopters. However there’s a huge issue to do with disposing of the solar PV waste in an environmentally friendly fashion.

Professor Rodney Stewart from Griffith University estimates that by 2050, we’ll have 1,500 kilotons of solar waste which will be sent to landfill unless we can figure out a more intelligent way to dispose of something supposed to help the environment. 

Solar Waste - Reclaim PV
Solar Waste – Reclaim PV (source: reclaimpv.com)

The only company in Australia to recycle panels is Reclaim PV in Adelaide, who take in 50,000 per year, but only panels manufactured without toxic chemicals. They then, according to owner Clive Fleming,

“…get the cells, completely separate that as well for the silver contacts, the aluminium and then the silicone to provide those back out to industry.”

According to the ABC program host Emilia Terzon, the Federal Government says it’s committed $167 million to an Australian recycling investment plan and state and federal environment ministers are expected to discuss how to tackle solar waste when they meet later this year. The Government is looking to set rules around how the industry deals with dead solar panels – adding them to the Product Stewardship Act, which mandates how electronic waste is dealt with.

Australian Council of Recycling chief executive Peter Schmigel also had a quote in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year about how a proper plan for recycling PV cells could have a positive effect on the economy:

“Recovery rates have been out of sight since the beginning of the scheme, nobody has said anything at all about there being an inbuilt recycling cost. It generates jobs, it generates environmental outcomes and yet for some reason we have policymakers who are hesitant about [establishing similar schemes] for solar PVs and batteries,” he said.

Watch this space. There will be plenty more on this topic as panels continue to reach EOL (end of life) and the policymakers are forced into action. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Redeployable solar trial at shopping centres

Redeployable solar is a very interesting topic as the issue of solar panel recycling comes to the fore. This week ARENA have announced funding for redeployable commercial solar via Australian startup Solpod. 

Redeployable solar

Redeployable solar – on Friday the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) announced funding for an Australian start up (Solpod Pty Ltd (Solpod)) to trial the installation of movable solar panels on commercial and government building rooftops. 

According to a post on the ARENA website, the startup has undertaken trials with ARENA, ERM Power, GPT and Property NSW.

Redeployable Solar Solpod
Redeployable Solar Solpod (source: solpod.com

Arena CEO Darren Miller, who took over from previous head Ivor Frischknecht last year, was quoted discussing the redeployable solar and their partnership with Solpod:

“Solpod’s new way of installing solar will pave the way for businesses who were previously locked out of rooftop solar to take up renewable energy solutions and options under shorter term power purchase agreements.

“This Australian start up will help to accelerate solar PV innovation and allows for renewable energy alternatives in niche markets, providing a cost-competitive alternative to standard methods of fixed mounting for delivering rooftop grid connected solar PV,” Mr Miller said.

There were also some comments from founder and CEO of Solpod James Larratt, who discussed the new ‘game-changing’ tech:

“Despite rooftop solar being cheaper and more sustainable than the grid, many businesses have made the rational decision to not adopt solar because of other factors such as length of commitment, disruption on site and damage to buildings. Solpod is the game-changer that removes these barriers and enables businesses to capture the savings in energy costs.”

“Solpod’s solution can adapt to meet individual business needs. For businesses that rent their premises, Solpod can offer short-term contracts to match lease terms. For landlords, Solpod allows flexibility for changing site use and will not damage the roof,” he said.

You can learn more about Solpod’s relocatable commercial solar via their website.

 

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Recycling Solar Panels | What to do with old solar panels.

Recycling solar panels is a topic which will be a lot more prevalent as the initial ‘wave’ panels begin to reach their end of life. Let’s take a look at what the plans are for trying to minimise the environmental impact and maximise the value  of a used solar panel.

Recycling Solar Panels | Will there be a waste crisis for old panels?

Australia has one of the highest PV solar uptakes in the world. There are plenty of us who have had solar installed for a long time. So long, in fact, that people are talking about end of life strategies to dispose of/ repurpose solar panels, so that they don’t cause a problem for the environment. 

Total Environment Centre director Jeff Angel has been crusading for the implementation of such strategies for solar panels, calling it a ‘systemic problem’:

“We’ve had a solar panel industry for years which is an important environmental initiative, and it should have been incumbent on government to act in concert with the growth of the industry so we have an environmentally responsible end-of-life strategy,” he said in a quote to the Sydney Morning Herald.

We’ve written previously about solar panel recycling and, although it’s good to see things like the ELSi project in Germany, there’s still a ways to go before we figure out the best way forward to recycle solar waste.

Reclaim PV: Recycling Solar Panels
Reclaim PV: Recycling Solar Panels (source: reclaimpv.com)

According to the director of Reclaim PV (the only dedicated photovoltaic recycler in Australia), Clive Fleming, they company recycles 90 per cent of materials in a panel. The company has been lobbying for state bans on landfill disposal of solar panels. 

Australian Council of Recycling chief executive Peter Schmigel also had a quote in the SMH about how a proper plan for recycling PV cells could have a positive effect on the economy:

“Recovery rates have been out of sight since the beginning of the scheme, nobody has said anything at all about there being an inbuilt recycling cost. It generates jobs, it generates environmental outcomes and yet for some reason we have policymakers who are hesitant about [establishing similar schemes] for solar PVs and batteries,” he said.

We expect over the coming year or two we’ll hear a lot more about this, with Sustainability Victoria working on a ‘national approach to photovoltaic product stewardship’, with their recommendations presented to the environment ministers around the middle of this year. 

Victoria have already announced they’ll ban electronic waste in landfill from July 2019, so it’ll be interesting to see if/how the other states follow suit.
 

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Printable Solar Panels / Cells – A Primer.

Printable Solar Panels – at some point it may be possible to use a simple desktop inkjet printer to print your own solar cells. We’re a while off that yet, but with great advancements in the technology over the last couple of years, let’s take a look at what the future holds for printed solar cells!

Printable Solar Panels

Printable Solar Panels - University of Newcastle
Printed Solar Cells – University of Newcastle (source: abc.net.au via University of Newcastle)

We wrote last week about the University of Newcastle and their foray into printed solar cells – today we’re going to take a bit of a deep dive into the situation and see where we can expect this technology to go in the next few years. 

The University of Newcastle are reporting that their latest tests in Newcastle brings them “about two years” away from launching their product onto the commercial solar market. Leading the charge has been University of Newcastle physicist Professor Paul Dastoor, who created the electronic inks which are used to print the flexible solar panels.

The process is According to the ABC, semi-conducting ink is printed on a transparent plastic sheet for the first layer, and then layers are printed on top of the other, until the cells are about 200 microns thick. For reference, human hair is around 50 microns. After that, a “top contact layer” is done again, reel-to-reel, using a technique known as sputter coating, according to Professor Dastoor.

They estimate the cost of their modules at less than $10 per square metre which is extremely cheap – the main problems are the efficiency of the printed solar panels and ensuring there’s enough space for them as it’ll take quite a lot of room on a roof. They use a lot of plastic to manufacture as well so looking at ways to recycle the waste of printed solar cells is extremely important. For that reason, in six months Professor Dastoor and his team will pull the printed solar cells off the Melbourne roof they’re currently on and investigate ways to minimise environmental waste. 

 

 

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Solar Panel Recycling | ELSi Project in Germany

Solar panel recycling – German engineering company Geltz Umwelt-Technologie has successfully developed an advanced recycling plant for obsolete or ageing solar panels. This has been funded by the EU and is known as the ELSi project. 

Solar Panel Recycling and Geltz

Solar Panel Recycling - Geltz
Solar Panel Recycling – Geltz (source: geltz.de)

Phys.Org have been reporting an interview with Fabian Geltz from Geltz Umwelt-Technologie:

“Solar module layers are bonded together with polymers that make mechanical separation and treatment of solar module components almost impossible,” said Geltz.

Exploring ways to ensure that valuable components do not end up in landfills was at the heart of ELSi’s mission. “Up until now, there has not been any technical solution to recycle and separate the valuable materials from the mixed scrap. The critical step in the recycling process is therefore the destruction of the polymer layers,” Geltz noted.

The main issue is deciding which parts of the panel are good to recycle, and how to salvage the used panels without too much energy/cost. 

ELSi came up with a very clever idea to solve this problem. Using an energy-efficient pyrolysis process (which involves decomposition brought about by high temperatures), fellow research partners were able to to dissolve the unwanted polymer layers and detach the glass inside the solar panels. This process allowed ELSi to separate and recover aluminium, glass, silver, copper, tin and silicon in their pure forms.

“Thanks to the successful recovery of materials and components, the unusable solar module can become a valuable source of raw materials for the future,” the company advised.

According to Phys.Org, the new facility could process around 50,000 solar modules every year. As solar power technology increases and we start seeing more used old solar panels, it’s fantastic there’s a way we can work on salvage and reclamation so we don’t just needlessly waste the materials. 

Solar recycling is only going to get bigger as the industry grows – so it’s super important to improve this technology before we end up with a surfeit of old solar panels causing damage to the environment.

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