By Peter Majewski, Professor Advanced Materials, UniSA Future Industries Institute
Currently, about 80 million solar PV panels are installed in Australia, 90 per cent of which are silicon solar panels. By 2030, solar panels are expected to create a cumulative waste volume of more than 500,000 tonnes and more than 1.1 million tonnes in 2040. To avoid an unwanted waste legacy, a robust legislation could regulate the end-of-life management of solar PV panels.
Possible regulatory environment
Landfill bans for solar panels, like in Victoria, can be a powerful tool to achieve desired outcomes. However, such regulatory measures should be accompanied with legislations that supports recycling of old panels. Tracking of panel’s serial numbers to provide information about the whole life cycle of a panel can also be a useful tool. The ownership of the panels also needs regulatory clarification.
Once the panels are installed on a rooftop of private dwellings, their operator is obviously the owner of the dwelling. However, once the panels are dismantled and on their way to a recycler, ownership and responsibilities for the proper handling of the panels needs to be clarified.
In case of commercially used solar PV panels of solar farms, it can be expected that business agreements between panel manufacturers and solar farm operators clarify the ownership and end-of-life arrangement for the panels before the solar farm gets planning approval.
Potential product stewardship scheme
A products stewardship scheme for solar panels can legislate that panels must be recycled through certified recyclers. Existing products stewardship schemes can be used as models for such schemes, like the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme, the Battery Stewardship Scheme in Australia, or the Tyre Stewardship Australia.
A scheme can distinguish between panels from private users and commercial users. In case of commercially used panels the business-to business (B2B) model of the European Union’s Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive could be applied.
Here, a producer must declare that the producer has the adequate resources available to finance environmentally sound end-of-life management processes for the product. The coverage of the related costs, take back options, or other related end-of-life management actions can be negotiated between the producer and business end user. This B2B model would ensure that legislators have a clear understanding of the end-of-life management of panels and the ability to monitor declared actions at the end of the panel’s life.
Legislation can also encourage manufacturers to engage in enterprise agreements with local solar panel recyclers to manage the collection and recycling of panels if the manufacturer does not offer a take back scheme. This may be especially of interest for overseas manufacturers who are expected to ensure that panels undergo end-of-life management processes which are in line with the legislation of the jurisdiction where the panels reside.
A common issue with new end-of-life legislation is how to deal with existing products which are subject of the new end-of-life legislation. One solution can be to exclude all previously sold products from the new end-of-life legislation. This, however, would cut off recyclers from a valuable stream of material to be recycled waste until newly sold products reach their end-of-life.
This would delay the development of proper recycling processes and, therefore, would be a barrier for establishing a circular economy for solar panels. Therefore, it is recommended to include existing panels in an end-of-life legislation and design the scheme in a way that it can also deal with existing panels considering both avenues, recycling and re-use.
Re-use of functional panels
Many panels, which are replaced, are still fully functional. Solar panel re-use offers a variety of social and environmental benefits and is an approach that could easily fit into existing collection and recycling networks and processes.
A bare minimum would be a certification like the electric compliance certificate or equivalent provided by a certified electrician or equivalent to ensure safe operation of the second hand panels. Consumers of second hand solar PV panels need to be certain that the second hand panels are still working at a certain defined capacity.
Therefore, a certificate would be necessary that provides information about the capacity and age of the second hand panel. Again, this certificate would need to be provided by a certified individual or organisation to ensure legal compliance before the panel enters the second hand economy.
Potential model for a product stewardship scheme.
Levy to support a scheme
Long term experience in waste management, domestic and international, indicates that convenience for consumers through collection of unwanted products without paying a levy at disposal of the product appears to be important to increase collection rate and decrease illegal disposal.
It can, therefore, be recommended that an upfront levy for supporting a product stewardship scheme for solar panels and their recycling is requested, like for car tyres, to avoid a disposal fee for consumers. Especially in the case of upgrading existing solar systems through new panels, a disposal fee for the old panels could be detrimental for the solar industry as consumers may delay or cancel the upgrade if the levy is too high.
Experience also shows that high collection rates are achieved where a fully funded not for profit product stewardship organisation is overseeing the product stewardship scheme. This would require that the levy is set at a level which not only allows to support collection and recycling of the panels, but also provides funds to support the operations of an effective product stewardship organisation.
At the current stage, the level of the levy is difficult to define. Whatever levy is applied, previous studies clearly show that it is essential to continuously monitor and, if necessary, adjust the levy to ensure high collection and recycling rates with time.
One issue with end-of-life legislation is the control of compliance avoidance or free riders. Free riders are organisations that may benefit from an end-of-life legislation without contributing to the cost of the scheme. One obvious measure would be a legislation that says that only panels from participating manufacturers can be sold in Australia.
Because such restriction may be in conflict with national competition and consumer rules or international general trade agreements, legal accreditations of such measures from related government bodies and regulators may be necessary.
Market forces can also be exploited to control free riders by involving retailers. As all products are designed with a consumer choice in mind, the product must attract consumers. Products that can only be legally disposed of at the cost of the consumer, as their manufacturers do not participate in a product stewardship scheme, may not attract much consumer attention.
Thus, consumer engagement in end-of-life legislation schemes is essential to close the loop. Legislation needs to require that retailers of panels must provide consumers with information about manufacturer’s participation in end-of-life schemes and potential costs for the consumer in case the consumer chooses panels from not participating manufacturers.
The need for renewable energy systems to replace coal and gas for electric power generation has been clearly stated. The unavoidable significant waste stream from renewable energy systems, therefore, needs appropriate waste management legislation.
Existing schemes show that an innovative and robust product stewardship scheme for solar panels can be designed to satisfy consumer demand, support solar industry, create jobs in the recycling industry, and address environmental concerns in the society regarding waste from solar panels.
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By Peter Majewski, Professor Advanced Materials, UniSA Future Industries Institute