Australia is facing a growing problem relating to the recycling of used photovoltaic solar panels. By 2040, it is estimated that the country will have a mountain of 450,000 tons of used solar panels. However, these panels should not be viewed as “useless”. In fact, they can become valuable sources of social, environmental and economic value.
An interesting report from the University of Queensland and the PV Alliance Circular explores how used solar panels can be put to good use. The report examines the market for used and surplus solar panels and how they can be repurposed, remanufactured and recycled. The goal was to identify market and policy barriers to leveraging these panels more effectively.
The report found that many solar panels are discarded before the end of their useful lives. This is partly due to renewable energy certificates, which incentivize investors to install new panels rather than extend the life of existing panels. In addition, lower-quality panels have a higher failure rate, which also contributes to waste.
However, the report notes that panels that cannot be reused still contain valuable materials including silver, aluminium, silicon, glass and copper. The recovery of these materials has become more efficient, increasing their value. For example, silicon nanotechnology made by processing recovered silicon can sell for over A$44,000 per kilogram.
To take advantage of used solar panels, the report suggests treating them as assets through a value capture system. This refers to adopting a circular economy model, in which panels are reused and recycled. Coherent policies and regulations and commercial services are needed to remove barriers to reusing and recycling panels. This includes creating standards for testing and certification of reused panels, repair warranties, and industry accreditation and reporting requirements. Additionally, there is a need to engage with a wider range of potential consumers, insurers and solar panel manufacturers to address perceived barriers.
Finally, the report highlights the need to change the perception of used solar panels from ‘waste’ to ‘asset’ so that their social, environmental and economic value can be harnessed. With consistent policies and regulations, as well as professional services, it is possible to make the most of used solar panels in Australia and build a sustainable circular economy.