Weekend read: Solar recycling’s glass ceiling and other problems
At the end of 2022, Reclaim PV, one of Australia’s most recognised solar panel recyclers, went broke. Clive Fleming, its founder, said Reclaim PV’s income streams dried up just as the three-year lease at its Brisbane warehouse came to an end. The facility contained between 50,000 and 100,000 panels, of which a percentage were cadmium telluride.
Reclaim PV folded under the pressure of years spent developing a recycling methodology in-house on a low budget, Fleming says, coupled with the burden of initiating manufacturer networks, establishing collection channels, and pitching for investors. Fleming sees himself as a passionate entrepreneur that tried to create a feasible model to deal with Australia’s looming wave of solar waste, which the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates will hit 450,000 tonnes by 2040.
Anthony Vippond, co-founder of Lotus Energy – a main competitor to Reclaim – has a less forgiving take and describes Reclaim as “just another REDcycle.” Vippond here is referring to the publicised demise of Australia’s premier soft plastic recycling scheme, also in late 2022. A major media story in Australia, it eventually came to light that REDcycle had spent years filling warehouses across the country with soft plastics, accumulating the waste without the capacity to process the overwhelming volumes generated daily.
Vippond draws this parallel because Reclaim too, was stockpiling. This is true of every solar recycler in Australia. All, bar Lotus, are yet to start processing. And the situation is an understandable one. “We don’t have a lot of solar panels at the moment to recycle,” says Peter Majewski, a researcher at the University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute. Recycling technology also has long lead times and requires high upfront outlay.
The sticking point for Vippond is that before Reclaim PV’s website went down in May, it guaranteed 100% of solar panels would be recycled or reused and all recovered materials reintroduced into Australian supply chains. “Is stockpiling recycling?” Vippond asks.
Working with the Queensland state government to initiate a solar recycling trial, industry body the Smart Energy Council (SEC) identified significant mistrust towards the solutions to solar’s most pervasive problem. Consumers are “very, very skeptical,” Carlos Nunez, the council’s senior project officer tells pv magazine.
Pictures posted on a solar industry Facebook forum, of Reclaim’s stockpiles languishing in the Brisbane warehouse yard in April, exacerbated the situation. Reclaim founder Fleming says the images were shown out of context and don’t explain that he had, in fact, been working with another recycler, Solar Recovery Corporation (SRC), to organise responsible offtake of the stock. It is practices like this, from within the industry, which spread misinformation and, ultimately, mistrust, Fleming says.
Either way, the saga highlights a clean energy industry struggling to come to terms with its not-so-clean aspects.
In Australia, it is estimated the recovered material from a solar panel is worth between $4 and $6 (USD 2.66 – 4.12). “When you calculate how much is in one panel, in terms of scrap material, it’s not much,” University of South Australia’s Majewski says.
Veteran solar researcher Pierre Verlinden says the problem is compounded by the fact solar panels contain components which are very difficult to recycle at low cost. “Today, there is no technique to recycle silver at a lower cost than you could get it in the market,” he says.
For Verlinden, the critical question is not how to redesign solar panels to be more recyclable but rather, how to reduce the amount of precious materials they contain in the first place. There is simply no way to manufacture enough panels to meet our climate targets if we continue using the same amount of silver and, for heterojunction cells, indium and bismuth, Verlinden says.
Recycling can’t help shore up this supply problem either because demand for these scarce materials simply outstrips supply no matter how it’s twisted, says the expert, adding, “We need to use abundant materials.”
While recycling is a long way off making solar supply chains circular, in Australia it will encounter the somewhat ironic issue of recovering too much. In this case, solar glass. Specially manufactured for the industry, solar glass is heavy and, therefore, expensive to ship. Given Australia has very little solar manufacturing, a circular re-injection pathway for the material is far from clear.
“Solar panel recycling is only viable if you have a market for the material,” Majewski points out. There is indeed momentum growing around onshoring more of the renewables supply chain – and Verlinden says solar glass would be his first choice of investment – but this, as so often happens, leads into different territory.
Further pressure is applied to this fragile recycling ecosystem by the rise of outfits reselling second-hand panels overseas, mostly in Africa. Finding new homes for working panels is clearly a good sustainability outcome, since repurposing is less energy intensive than recycling, but the reality is far less compelling. It is usual for resellers to do only a visual check on panels before exporting them.
“Looking at it is part of the process but it’s a minor part,” Lotus Energy’s Vippond says. Competition is fierce, Vippond says, despite what he terms “ridiculous” resale practices. He reports that he receives daily calls from people looking to buy Lotus stock. This resale export market was front of mind for every recycler pv magazine spoke to.
All of this highlights the complexity of trying to remodel a linear-thinking industry, and society, into a circular one. Still around a decade away from significant volumes of incoming used solar panel stock, and without a clear offtake market for recovered components besides metals – and with competition from a rogue resale market thrown in – solar recycling in Australia today is far from clear cut. The most glaring absence in the landscape is that of governmental assistance.
Recycling mandates in markets such as Europe have proven powerful and Australia has its own end-of-life schemes for items including car tires, televisions, and white goods. Australia’s previous federal government did make noise about solar waste and even budgeted a few million to initiate a scheme but the intent fizzled out to nothing, according to the SEC’s Nunez and researcher Majewski.
Prompted by that federal inaction, the SEC began talking to state governments about establishing solar stewardship and recycling schemes and, from there, the Queensland government agreed to fund its current trial.
The SEC is now in the process of consulting with a diverse group of stakeholders to get to the bottom of questions such as, who will bear the cost of such a scheme? How can the right kinds of incentive, or disincentive, be set up? And, perhaps most importantly, how can a scheme gain support from installers who are ultimately the ones removing solar systems?
Australia’s new federal government is looking into solar recycling at the moment, albeit by conducting consultation under the umbrella of the country’s broader e-waste problem. While still in the early stages, any action towards erecting a recycling framework, or even just a scaffold, would be welcome. “If there’s no policy behind it which gives [recyclers] the certainty of income, then things like Reclaim PV are going to happen again and again,” adds Majewski.