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How the Circular PV Alliance is fighting the Growing Solar Panel Recycling Crisis

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Circular PV Alliance Introduction

The solar panel industry is facing a pressing issue that demands immediate attention: the impending crisis of solar panel recycling. In response to this challenge, the Circular PV Alliance (CPVA) has emerged as a leading industry initiative dedicated to combating waste and promoting sustainable practices. This article delves into the story behind the CPVA and its mission to revolutionize the Australian solar energy sector and find a home for used solar panels.

Unveiling the Problem

It all began when Dr Nick Engerer, a renowned expert from Solcast, shared pictures of discarded PV panels on LinkedIn in July 2021. The images sparked a powerful reaction, with countless comments expressing shock and concern. The realization that something as valuable as a PV panel was being callously discarded triggered a sense of shame and a surge of motivation. This led to the birth of the Circular PV Alliance.

The mission of the Circular PV Alliance

The core objective of the Circular PV Alliance (CPVA) is to unlock the full environmental, economic, and social benefits of solar energy by facilitating the transition to a circular economy within the Australian solar energy sector. The CPVA aims to tackle the solar panel waste crisis head-on and ensure a sustainable future for the industry.

CPVA

Assessing the Scale of the Issue

The first step taken by the CPVA was to comprehensively analyze the magnitude of the problem. Approximately one-third of all Australian households have a solar PV system installed on their rooftops. As of the end of 2021, this amounted to over 3 million individual systems across the country, translating to approximately 70 million solar panels. Even if only a small percentage of these panels are replaced annually, it is evident that there is a substantial volume of used panels being taken down from rooftops.

Insights from solar panel installers and recyclers indicate that panels are typically replaced after seven to ten years of use. This raises critical questions about the true “green” credentials of solar energy. If a solar panel only generates electricity for a mere seven years within its expected 30-year lifespan, it fails to realize its full environmental potential.

Impending Waste Crisis

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Australia is projected to accumulate 100,000 tonnes of waste PV modules by 2035. By 2040, this figure is estimated to reach a staggering 300,000 to 450,000 tonnes. To combat this concerning trend, several state governments, such as Victoria, have already implemented legislation to prohibit the disposal of PV panels in landfills. The urgency to address this issue was underscored by Sussan Ley, the Federal Minister for the Environment, in a National Press Club speech delivered in June, labelling it a potential “landfill nightmare” for the solar industry.

Birth of the Alliance

The Circular PV Alliance (CPVA) is a grassroots organization spearheaded by the solar energy industry itself. Driven by a sense of responsibility, the founding members of the alliance gathered to address the pivotal question: “If not us, then who? If not now, when?” Regular meetings were held dedicated to finding a solution. As a practical-minded group, they recognized that taking the first step was crucial. Thus, the mantra of “get them, test them, and use them” emerged, with the focus being on discarded solar panels. A micro-pilot project was initiated in October 2021 to glean insights and gauge the feasibility of scaling up operations if the results proved promising. Working groups were also established to explore the market for used solar panels, develop certification standards, and implement tracing technologies that could ensure consumer confidence in secondhand products.

Acquiring Panels for Testing

 

To kickstart the micro-pilot project, a carefully curated batch of 14 panels was selected from a substantial collection obtained from a solar installer in regional New South Wales. The aim was to secure a diverse array of panel brands showcasing different states of appearance. This selection allowed for a realistic representation of the condition of panels removed from rooftops, ensuring practicality and valuable insights during the testing phase.

Testing

The Testing Process

As the focus was on assessing the panels for potential re-use, four crucial aspects were examined:

    1. Basic Visual Inspection: The panels underwent a visual inspection to ascertain their condition.
    2. Safety Evaluation: Rigorous electrical safety tests were conducted.

       

    3. Power Output Assessment: The international standard equipment was utilized to measure the power output of the panels.

       

    4. Quality Verification: An electroluminescence test was performed to gauge the overall quality of the panels.

The initial visual inspection was carried out by Megan Jones in Dubbo, after which the panels were sent to PV Lab in Canberra for comprehensive testing.

Encouraging Test Results

The results of the tests were promising. Out of the initial batch of 14 second-hand solar panels, 10 were deemed suitable for re-use. While all panels showed a slight reduction in power output (ranging from 5% to 18%), only four displayed micro-cracking that rendered them unsuitable for further use. Remarkably, two panels showed no signs of micro-cracks, even after years of utilization and storage in a warehouse. This testifies to the resilience of older panels, as they demonstrated the ability to endure the process of removal, transportation, and testing without significant damage. The absence of established measures to minimize harm during panel removal or specialized crates for transport and storage further underscores their durability.

Embracing Second Lives

In the final phase of the micro-pilot project, the CPVA plans to utilize the panels that passed the tests. They are currently in the process of identifying a suitable site and collaborating with an installer to facilitate this endeavour. Close monitoring of these panels will be conducted in the coming months and years to gather valuable data.

Future Endeavors

The CPVA’s next steps involve the installation of tested panels to assess their performance during their second life. This will provide vital information to guide future testing programs. Concurrently, the alliance will continue to build upon the insights gained from the micro-pilot project and engage in collaborative efforts with industry participants. Key areas of focus include developing a re-use roadmap, expanding the panel testing initiative, establishing certification standards, implementing tracking technologies, and creating a comprehensive database for reused panels. To learn more about the CPVA, please visit www.circularpv.com.au.

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