Recycling solar

A stack of solar panels after the aluminium frame has been removed at Reclaim PV’s warehouse in Adelaide.
With the recent boom in solar PV installations and the increasing uptake of storage batteries, we take a look at what will happen to these products when they reach the end of their lives.

In our last update on this topic back in January 2018, installed solar capacity had grown by 4500% since 2010 to 6.2GW. According to the not-for-profit Australian PV Institute, as of June 2019 there are now over 2 million Australian solar PV installations, with 7.1GW in residential (< 10kW), 1.8GW in commercial (10 to 100kW) and 4GW in utility-scale installations (> 100kW), with a total combined capacity in Australia of 12.9GW. Approximately 5000 installations in 2018 were also for combined solar and battery systems.

The numbers can tend to glide over your head, but the growth is impressive. With the majority of these panels installed in the last decade and a typical panel life of 15 to 25 years (and most batteries only recently installed with a life of around 7 to 10 years), recycling has not yet become critical.

But there is a growing number of panels that require disposal: some are damaged in transport and installation, a proportion are replaced for upgrades (often when storage batteries are added) and a trickle are reaching the end of their lives. From an estimated 2600 tonnes of panels in 2019, this is set to increase very rapidly in 10 to 15 years time, up to an estimated 1.5 million tonnes of panels and just under 100,000 tonnes of storage batteries in Australia by 2050, according to work done by researchers at Griffith University.

So if you have damaged panels or old panels that are no longer required or a storage battery that fails, what can you do with them? And if your installer takes your discarded panels, where do they end up? Until recently, the answer was that they ended up in landfill, and that is still mostly the case. However, some businesses and parts of government have started work on providing the infrastructure and processes to recycle old panels and batteries.

Current requirements for recycling

Historically there have been no requirements for the recycling of solar PV systems or batteries, but this began to change eight years ago. The federal Product Stewardship Act came into being in 2011 and provides a framework to manage the harmful impacts of products, particularly around their resulting waste or disposal, although nothing has yet been implemented.

In this process, different states volunteer to perform the research and assessment for a given product to identify if a stewardship intervention might be required and, if so, which approach would best meet the needs for a particular product category.

Queensland undertook the responsibility for investigating batteries in 2013, while Sustainability Victoria (SV) volunteered on behalf of Victoria in 2016 for solar PV systems, which includes the panels, inverters and batteries. The investigations, although coordinated by one or two state entities, are national in scope and involve consultation with all stakeholders, including industry, business and government organisations. This process is still underway for PV systems. Resulting recommendations may focus on solar panels, as inverters and batteries can be dealt with in other ways: inverters have valuable components and can be recycled within existing systems, and batteries are likely to be handled by the Queensland-led stewardship approach.

Michael Dudley, the strategy lead for market development at SV, says the current situation is an opportunity for jurisdictions to work collaboratively before significant volumes of PV waste occur. Measures to encourage recycling have not yet been determined and may be voluntary or regulatory, could incentivise eco-design (redesign of products to facilitate end-of-life recovery), or consist of an end-of-life levy for PV panels. Dudley notes that the Battery Stewardship Council and Queensland government are proposing an upfront levy to cover end-of-life management, but that is also not yet decided upon and is still in the scheme development phase.

What parts of a solar panel can be recycled?

There are two main types of panels, but the majority installed in Australia are silicon wafer panels, both mono- and multi-crystalline types, with CdTe (cadmium telluride) thin film panels making up less than 5% of the market globally. A third type, CIGS (copper, indium, gallium and selenide), is a niche product only used in consumer products and wearables.

Dr Richard Corkish at the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics at UNSW says that the main toxic materials in panels are lead used in the solder and the cadmium component in thin film panels. Lead has historically been used, with exemptions from some RoHS (restriction of hazardous substance) requirements, but this is changing as manufacturing techniques evolve and it may be phased out. Toxic components like these may leach into water supplies and cause health and environment issues.

The rest of the components in a solar panel consist of good quality glass, aluminium frames, polymers, silicon, copper and silver paste (used for the printed conductors on each cell), all of which (up to 95%), along with the toxic components, can in principle be successfully recycled.

The metals and glass have significant value by being reused, especially the silver paste as the quantity contained in solar panels is projected to make up a large fraction of the world’s total available supply in the future. It may also be possible to recover intact solar cells for reuse if economical processes to dismantle the panels without breaking the cells can be developed. So the potential to keep discarded solar panels out of landfill and recycle or reuse them is very good, if the will and effort are put into developing a system to facilitate that.

Panels laid out at the Reclaim PV warehouse ready for the aluminium frame to be removed.

E-waste ban

It is in this environment, along with the Victorian Labor government’s 2014 election promise to improve waste management practices such as recycling and product stewardship, that Victoria has recently implemented a ban on all electronic waste, or e-waste, being sent to landfill. South Australia and the ACT had already banned certain types of e-waste from landfill up to a decade ago. The Victorian ban is complementary to but separate from the investigation into stewardship options and came into effect on 1 July; unlike other e-waste bans, it includes all electronic devices, including solar panels and batteries. The Victorian government is also consulting on a circular economy paper (to reduce the effects of production and consumption) and the Australian Standard covering e-waste management, AS/NZS 5377, is under review as it hasn’t been updated since 2013.

Dudley says that the Victorian e-waste ban is the most comprehensive ban in Australia and most closely aligns with the European WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive. The EPA takes on the watchdog and enforcement role for the ban, while SV’s role is to undertake education and promotion, along with a non-regulatory infrastructure support program to ensure that disposal is safe and available.

Although funds have been supplied to develop and establish recycling processes, it may be a lack of available transport infrastructure and incentives to encourage recycling that will prove the most significant barriers. All recyclers mention the significant transport and logistics cost required to return products to recycling centres, and low landfill fees discourage companies and consumers from seeking to have products recycled (especially interstate where limited or no e-waste bans exist).

One final part of the picture involves a general environmental duty, part of the Environment Protection Amendment Act 2018, that EPA Victoria states “requires anyone conducting an activity that poses risks to human health and the environment to understand and minimise those risks”. Modelled on occupational health and safety laws, it will be the first legally enforceable general environmental duty in Australia and is designed to help deal with poor industry practices.

It would be fair to say that things are starting to move but there is still a long way to go. A recent policy submission from the Clean Energy Council, an active player in PV panel and battery product stewardship, stated: “The opportunities for reclaiming and recycling renewable technology products at their end of life is significant but remain largely untapped. A fully operational model for management of these products in Australia would be a welcome step forward.”

Materials recovered from a batch of about five solar panels, including glass and copper wiring from the bus bars (left) and the solar cells recovered (right). Reclaim PV has plans to tweak the furnace process to reclaim whole cells.

Existing panel recyclers

The definition of an operating recycling process is somewhat open to debate. Currently removal of the aluminium frame (17% of the panel) satisfies the criteria for recycling under Victoria’s new e-waste waste management policy, despite the fact that the rest of the panel is not processed. It is also difficult to get data on the numbers of panels that have reached end of life. Researchers at Griffith University note that there’s no data on the collection and recycling of solar panels as the product stewardship scheme is still under development.

For recycling businesses, the biggest issue is that the volume of discarded solar panels is not yet sufficient to make full recycling economically viable, very closely followed by the fact that collecting and transporting the panels is logistically difficult and expensive due to their size.

Reclaim PV has researched the processes required and has set up solar panel recycling facilities, starting in Adelaide. Reclaim PV’s Clive Fleming says they have staff around Australia with a collection point about to open in Adelaide, then others to open in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. He says they will process about 50,000 panels this year, which consists of removing the aluminium frame and stockpiling the panels until there is enough volume to run their recycling process. At the moment this process crushes the silicon wafer panels, as other overseas recycling processors do, and then uses heat and chemical processes to extract the metals and other compounds.

They are developing a process for CdTe thin film panels, and also trying to refine the existing process for silicon panels to recover the glass unbroken, with the possibility of extracting intact cells for reuse. The aluminium frames go to a recycler, glass to a producer of bottles, metal contacts go to metal recyclers, and the silicon is being held onto for the moment, but it will be reused. Currently 90% of the silicon panel materials are recovered, but they are aiming to improve that to 100%. Fleming says that at this stage they have partnerships with several manufacturers, but responsible installers also request their services.

Materials recovered from batteries include (L to R) steel, copper, cobalt/nickel/lithium powder and aluminium granules. Image: Envirostream

Another recycler is PV Industries based in Sydney. They are about to open their first collection point in Melbourne, but plan to also have collection points in Sydney and locations in Queensland. Co-founder James Petesic says they only take silicon wafer panels at this stage. They are already collecting panels and have a deframer on its way from Europe, with a processing plant to follow within 6 to 12 months. They have chosen Melbourne as their starting point because the e-waste ban means there is a definite recycling requirement there.

Petesic says that although Queensland and NSW have lots of panels, there is no pressure to recycle due to low landfill fees. He cited a need for legislation, as business does not have an obligation to recycle but only to keep costs down, despite PV Industries’ message resonating with many of the businesses they talk to. Like Reclaim PV they have also spoken to local government and businesses, such as solar farms, in an effort to establish their supply network. They will deframe panels until they have a processing plant and enough volume to make the full process viable.

A company that knows the challenges of recycling solar panels well is a global manufacturer of CdTe thin film panels, First Solar. They pioneered recycling of their products on a global basis in 2005 with pre-funding for end-of-life recovery incorporated in the purchase cost. They invested in several phases of research and development and established recycling plants co-located with their manufacturing facilities in the USA, Malaysia, Vietnam and a standalone facility in Germany. The co-location with their manufacturing plants enabled the efficient recycling of manufacturing scrap, while the pre-funding ensured that end-of-life panels were returned for recycling.

In 2012 when the EU adopted the WEEE directive, making panel recycling within Europe mandatory, First Solar removed the pre-funding cost from the purchase price. Customers can still choose to enter into renewable two-year recycling service agreements and 90% or more of their customers are in the utility-scale segment, such as solar farms, where thorough decommissioning plans are often part of the permit agreements.

Andreas Wade, their Global Director of Sustainability, says they had discussions with Reclaim PV in Australia, but the waste volume is currently not enough for commercial operations. As volumes grow in the future, First Solar will evaluate options for further decentralising their recycling infrastructure. In the meantime, Australian customers must pay the costs to return First Solar panels to Malaysia or Germany for recycling, or find domestic alternatives.

Battery cells being loaded onto the conveyor at Envirostream to be taken through the first mechanical separation process of rapid coarse shredding. After this, further shredding and granulation occurs in stage 2, before final material separation in stage 3. Image: Envirostream

What to do with panels

For those wishing to dispose of silicon or CdTe end-of-life panels, the general recommendation is to find a responsible installer or local council depot that will return them to a panel recycler. However, don’t assume that because someone will take the panels, they will be recycled. In many parts of Australia, they are still taken to landfill. Contact Reclaim PV, PV Industries, or other new players, SolaCycle and CMA Ecocycle, to find the possible collection points that may be near you.

Renewable energy system batteries

The batteries used in renewable energy systems consist of two main types: traditional lead-acid batteries such as those found in a car, and the newer lithium ion batteries which come in two sorts of chemistries: nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) which are lithium based; and lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO).

Lead-acid battery recycling is well established in Australia, with over 90% recycled and generally with a 98% recovery rate of the battery components. Many councils will allow lead-acid batteries to be dropped off at council waste depots or transfer stations, but there are EPA restrictions on transporting lead-acid batteries in larger quantities.

The storage, transport and disposal of lithium batteries are problematic because of safety hazards due to the risk of fires or explosion from undischarged batteries and the toxicity of the components.

There is only one lithium battery processor in Australia, Envirostream. They started in 2017 and are based in Melbourne, originating from a metal recycler, PF Metals. Andrew Mackenzie, a former PF Metals director and former head of the Australian Battery Recycling Initiative, saw an opportunity with lots of small recyclers having a problem with batteries.

According to Mackenzie current battery recycling levels nationally are approximately 130,000 tonnes/year of lead-acid batteries, 400 tonnes/year of handheld batteries and less than 7 tonnes/year of larger batteries (those used in household renewable energy systems), although as recycling rates are so low (about 3% to 5% for handheld batteries less than 5kg and extremely low for larger batteries), these are rough estimates.

However, as the chemistry of larger batteries is the same as smaller batteries, it’s all doable and just requires the logistics and economics to be worked out. Envirostream has developed both battery and solar panel recycling capabilities, but the latter won’t be activated until a large enough volume of panels is available to make it viable. They were recently granted $110,000 from SV under the Resource Recovery Infrastructure Fund to upgrade and increase their capacity to recycle high risk batteries.

Mackenzie says that they can recycle both types of lithium batteries, and all sizes, from the smaller batteries in consumer appliances up to larger batteries used for renewable energy systems. The recovery processes are the same, but the larger batteries require some manual disassembly into their component cells before processing.

Inverters include valuable components. Reclaim PV dismantles them and sends the boards and parts to their downstream partners for further processing.

Envirostream recovers over 92% of the components from NMC lithium batteries, only losing 5% to 7% in the electrolyte, with recovered materials going to a battery manufacturer in South Korea or reused locally, including plastic parts that go into a road paving program with Close the Loop or construction company Downer. The lower value LiFePO batteries only have an 80% recovery rate because of the low value metal (mainly iron) dust that is too fine and oxidised and not wanted by manufacturers.

There are currently no regulations covering the disposal of batteries, other than the e-waste ban, and even there, Mackenzie says that enforcement is an issue. He says that even for smaller batteries there is not enough enforcement for the regulation already in place.

Envirostream has partnered with LG Chem so that batteries replaced under warranty are passed on to Envirostream for disposal. Smaller lithium ion batteries collected via initiatives such as Mobile Muster at retail stores, Detox Your Home drives and through local councils also end up at Envirostream. However,  the larger batteries used in renewable energy systems are problematic because of their size, weight and safety concerns, and many councils are reluctant to take them because of this and the lack of downstream options and unknown costs.

What to do with batteries

If you have larger batteries requiring disposal, you can give them to Envirostream, but you will be charged for transport or must arrange it yourself. The batteries will require a licensed electrician to remove them and a dangerous goods truck to transport them. Interstate movements will also need to be recorded with the EPA and some installations require that the EPA is notified when they are installed or moved.

Mackenzie says that there is currently little compulsion for people or sellers to ensure safe disposal of larger batteries; it is uneconomic and people don’t want to pay for it. He believes that there needs to be a levy or perhaps a scheme similar to vehicle leasing where batteries are leased and then recovered at end of life.

Thanks to Maryanne Coffey at the Clean Energy Council for also providing assistance with this article.
Dr Juliette Milbank
Juliette is a mechanical engineer, researcher and writer who lives in north-east Victoria.

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