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Australia is facing a 450,000-tonne mountain of used solar panels. Here’s how to turn it into a valuable asset


There were estimates 100 million individual photovoltaic (PV) solar panels in Australia by the end of 2022. We estimate that this number is likely to grow to over 2 billion if we want to meet those of Australia 2050 net zero emissions target. This growth means Australia is facing a 450,000 tons mountain of used PV panels by 2040.

Managing all those discarded PV panels is going to be a huge job. However, rather than treating them as “waste”, these panels can be a source of social, environmental and economic value. Our new industry report outlines how we can realize that value.

PV panels contain a variety of valuable materials. The panels can also be used for new applications, such as on uninhabited community and sports club buildings, for irrigation pumps in agriculture or for camping and caravanning.

At the moment, however, they tend to follow a linear “take, make, throw away” life cycle. As a result, many PV panels are sent to landfill or stored. Much of their value is wasted.

PV panels are thrown away en masse, but it is a shame to send them to the landfill.
CPVA, Author provided

Read more: Please stop removing your solar panels early. It creates a huge waste problem for Australia

What did the research look at?

The University of Queensland and Circular PV Alliance assessed the market for used and surplus PV panels, with funding from Energy consumers Australia. Our findings are in the report launched today on the Smart Energy Council Expo in Sydney.

Our goal was to understand potential customers and value streams for used PV panels. We also wanted to identify market or policy barriers to reusing, repurposing and recycling these panels.

We reviewed the academic research on the topic and conducted a series of interviews. Thirteen organizations with diverse interests in the field of reuse and recycling of solar energy and PV panels participated. A series of recurring themes emerged pointing to potential or perceived opportunities and challenges for PV panel reuse.

Read more: How to maximize your home solar system savings and lower your energy bills

What did the research yield?

In general, there was widespread concern among those interviewed that PV panels are decommissioned before the end of their productive life. Some important reasons stood out:

  • certificates for renewable energy Encouraging PV investors to install new panels rather than extending the life of older panels as the subsidy is paid in full upon installation, rather than when power is generated

  • Low-quality PV products have a high failure rate

  • an array combining several PV panels may be limited by the worst performing panel.

These issues add to the already large volumes of discarded panels from solar farms and warranty and insurance claims.

However, we also found that reclaimed PV panels provide low-cost, clean energy options for households and community energy projects.

Read more: Solar power can lower living costs, but it’s not an option for many people – they need better support

Young woman in hi-viz carries PV parts as she walks past two old solar panels
Several challenges need to be overcome to scale up the repurposing and recycling of the amount of panels thrown away in Australia.
CPVA, Author provided

Even if they are not reusable, PV panels contain valuable materials that can be recovered. The average silicon panel contains silver (47% by value of recycled materials), aluminum (frame, 26%), silicon (cells, 11%), glass (8%) and copper (8%).

And the recycling of PV panels is becoming increasingly efficient. This has led to better quality outputs and higher recovery rates. For example, nano-silicon made by processing recovered silicon can sell for more than A$44,000 per kilogram.

A shift towards viewing a PV panel as a valuable resource or asset, rather than a “waste”, will give both consumers and industry a better understanding of its inherent value, even if it is not brand new.

Read more: Solar power is the cheapest power, and a literal lightbulb moment showed us we can cut costs and emissions even further

How do we turn ‘waste’ into an asset?

We can keep used photovoltaic panels out of landfill by treating them as assets through a value capture system. This will create a variety of benefits and opportunities.

The circular economy model turns the ‘take, make, reuse’ phases into a self-sustaining cycle. It provides a foundation to grow markets for used PV panels. This will respond to consumer demand for credible and sustainable products and services.

There are already successful examples of similar solutions for other products in Australia and around the world. Australian examples are the National Television and Computer Recycling Program
And Tire Stewardship Australiaas well as state-based beverage container deposit schemes.

stacks of solar panels outside a recycling plant
Old solar panels are piled up outside the French Envie factory, which recycles all parts of the panels.
Caroline Blumberg/EPA/AAP

So how do we set up a circular economy for PV panels? We found that a combination of policies, regulations and commercial services can overcome the obstacles to reuse and recycling.

A consistent, nationwide approach is needed to create successful markets for used PV panels. Standards for testing and certifying these panels, as well as repair warranties, are essential to building consumer confidence in this product.

Requirements for industry reporting and accreditation, as well as product traceability so that the reused and recycled panels can be taken into account, are all important elements of product management and markets for used PV panels.

Targeted engagement with a wider range of potential consumers, insurers and PV panel manufacturers will help overcome their perceived barriers to panel reuse.

Together, these actions provide the building blocks for creating a circular economy for PV panels in Australia. The looming amounts of used panels and the ever-increasing amount of solar being installed in Australia are forcing us to do so. Consumers, industry and the environment will all benefit.

The author thanks Megan Jones, co-founder and director of the Circular PV Alliance, for contributing to this article.

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