I need to recycle my old solar panels

What the Guru says

Hi Solar Guru , I have a small old solar system, and now getting a new bigger one. Where can I recycle my old panels – or sell them? 

So recycling solar panels is still in its infancy in Australia. but there are facilities where you can send your solar panel to get them recycled.

There are also companies that will take your old panels and ship them to developing countries, where they can be used for water pumping  or powering a village somewhere, where they have nothing else.

So you got a couple of choices. Ask your local installer.

The options when you need to recycle your solar panels

In Australia, the earliest mass adoption of solar occurred around 2007 to 2008 and went full steam ahead by 2010. Thanks to large rebates and generous feed-in tariffs. So these panels have been on roofs for over a decade, and the technology has evolved. Often the early residential PV systems are only 1 or 1.5 kW big, meaning they generate, on average, 4 to 7 kWh of electricity a day. Not enough to power most homes.

So many owners of small systems are now moving to larger units, such as 6.6, 10 or even 15 kW units. This is the correct range of sizes for residential homes. Sometimes in the process, the old system panels are removed, and the question is, what can we do with them?

Local solar panel recycling rates are too low

The recycling rates for solar panels in Australia have historically been relatively low for a number of reasons:

  • Infrastructure and facilities are lacking

Australia has faced challenges in developing a comprehensive recycling infrastructure for solar panels. While the Federal and State Governments, via rebate schemes, have spurred the demand for solar panels. They neglected their responsibility regarding the reuse and recycling aspect. So, despite solar panels containing many valuable resources such as aluminium, glass and silver. Australia has been slow to establish dedicated solar equipment recycling facilities and processes compared to regions with a more mature solar industry,  such as Germany, Japan and the US.

  • The legal and regulatory framework is missing

In 2023 Australia has no specific regulations making solar panel recycling mandatory. While some landfills have now barred the depositing of solar panels, overall,  far too many panels enter the waste stream, and there needs to be Federal Government leadership to prioritise recycling solar panels.

Solar panels with frames removed in a Melbourne recycling facility
Solar panels with frames removed in a Melbourne recycling facility
  • Cost of transport vs value of the recycled material

Solar panels are distributed widely over our vast continent. Recycling facilities are so far only far and few. Therefore, the distance for panels to travel from the source to the recycling facility is relatively long.  While the recoverable material in solar panels has some economic value, the transport and handling costs usually outweigh this economic benefit, making recycling solar panels an economic loss leader. So, in summary, transporting solar panels from remote or regional areas to capital city-based recycling facilities can be costly and uneconomical.

  • The volumes are often still not economical

Also, with PV modules having a relatively long lifespan, typically lasting 15 to 25 years or more, the current volume of modules requiring recycling is still not too high. This makes the economy of scale for solar panel recycling still not too viable. This is why the mainstream recycling industry has so far ignored solar panels as a business sector.

It’s worth noting that as the solar industry continues to grow and more panels reach the end of their life, there is an increasing focus on growing panel recycling rates. It would be ironic that an industry that promotes sustainable living does not practice what it preaches.

There are a few options you can consider right now

Some panel recycling plants are emerging close to major cities. Have a look on the internet to see if there is one located close to you. On particular company called PVindustries has panel recycling pick-up points in Sydney and Melbourne.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcTYG_k8nf4&t=1s

Some local recycling centres across Australia accept solar panels. Could you check with your local recycling facilities to see if they can handle PV modules? They may have specific requirements or guidelines for accepting them, so it’s best to contact them directly to inquire.

You can also advertise the panels if they still work on platforms like Facebook Marketplace, gumtree or similar. There is an off-grid community looking for bargain solar equipment, and some of the older panels have been reused for camping applications.

Australian Solar companies have been known to export panels to places like Papa New Guinea and East Timor for community projects such as schools and hospitals, as the electrical grid infrastructure in these two countries is still not fully developed.

old solar panels in truck
Too many old solar panels and inverters still end up in the waste stream

Unfortunately, in future years, the solar panel mountain will only grow, so boutique solutions will not cut it.

While there are other players in this space, the industry is certainly not well enough developed to handle the mountain of 90 million plus solar panels, which will require recycling in the next decades. I believe the Federal Government will need to step in, in the future to force the importers of solar panels to add a small levy to the cost of the panels to develop a local recovery industry.

What stops panel recycling right now?

Ironically the existence of a solar rebate has, in the past, stopped useful panels from being reused.  For example, someone had a 5-year-old commercial solar system on a roof, and the building was to be demolished, and the site redeveloped. While the panels on the roof were not the latest model and technology, they worked fine and were perfectly suitable for re-use.

Because the solar rebate is linked with the panels and given to the panels, in many cases, it is more economical to purchase new panels than to use relatively new and working 2nd hand panels.  Furthermore, most solar panel manufacturers spell out in their warranty condition fine print that panels lose the product warranty when installed in a second location, away from the original installation point.

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