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Recovering materials from solar panels — An emerging Australian success story in circular economy

Kate Healey, Policy Manager, RE-Alliance.

At RE-Alliance we are often asked about end-of-life practices for solar PV panels. Today we can share some good news we learnt last week at the Clean Energy Council's Large-Scale Solar Forum. We were particularly impressed by a presentation from Rob Gell, a Director from Solar Recovery Corporation (SRC).

SRC is an Australian-owned company partnering with a European Company, LME, who manufacture clean technology specifically built to process end-of-life solar PV panels. In Europe, they have a 12-year history with a 99+% material recovery rate.

This is not recycling. It’s material recovery. It’s about diverting end-of-life solar PV panels from landfill streams and recovering the materials.

This has the potential to be a world-leading example as many countries move towards a more circular economy, reducing the need for future resource extraction by recovering materials from would-be waste. 

It will create local jobs in a new industry and deliver positive sustainable outcomes for our environment and human health. 

SRC recovers material from end-of-life solar panels by separating panels into parts. The process does not use pyrolysis, chemicals, crushing or thermal processes to recover materials. 

The SRC technology uses a combination of mechanical, electrical and vacuum processes to recover materials from PV panels. The PV material recovery technology can process 180,000 panels per annum, representing over 3,500 metric tonnes of valuable resources, which are returned to manufacturing streams, reducing the need for mining these materials in Australia.

Materials recovered include: aluminium, copper, glass, plastic and silicon.

SRC’s end-of-life solar panel management policy is compliant with the European Union’s Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE Directive) for the transport, storage, handling and processing of end-of-life solar panels. It also aligns with the Victorian Government’s Waste Management Policy on e-waste.

With the scale of roll-out of solar PV envisaged in the Australian Energy Market Operator’s (AEMO’s) Draft 2022 Integrated System Plan, there needs to be an end-of-life process for solar PV panels in place.

Facilities in Biloela and Townsville in Queensland are now accepting old panels. SRC will establish materials recovery technology in coming months at both locations. 

Additionally, solar panel collection centres will be established in South East Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria in coming weeks, with the same model approach being used as has been implemented and refined in Townsville and Biloela. 

The first processing machine is expected to arrive in June-July 2022. The first plant site for materials recovery will be in Queensland, with a national roll-out planned by the end of 2024.

The clean technology recovers 99+% from all panel types including Cadmium TE thin film panels. End-of-life compliant management and process fees are as per below:

Achieving a circular economy for solar in Australia will not be without its challenges. 

Capturing all end-of-life solar panels from the landfill stream is a huge task and requires many stakeholders to be on board with this system. It will require a change of values whereby old panels are seen as a resource rather than a waste. 

To support circular economy practices like this we can educate others and support circular economy initiatives, including material recovery; ban end-of-life solar panels from landfills under local government control; and use drop off and collection points for end-of-life solar panels.

SRC is collecting old panels now. The first processing plant will be operational in Queensland in the next few months.

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