UTS Study to enable Circular Solar Economy

As many of Australia's rooftop solar PV systems near the end of their life, it is crucial to develop strategic circular economy strategies.

UTS Study to enable Circular Solar Economy

In the evolving landscape of renewable energy, the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) spearheads a groundbreaking initiative to propel the transition to a circular economy for solar panels and energy storage batteries. This work forms part of our project, PV Industries: Circular Solar Trial, funded by the NSW Environment Protection Authority.

As Australia faces the impending end-of-life phase for a considerable number of rooftop solar PV systems, the need for strategic circular economy strategies becomes paramount.

The Challenge Ahead: Without proper measures, waste volumes from retired solar PV systems could surge to alarming levels by 2040. The potential waste crisis necessitates urgent adoption of circular economy practices to reuse and recycle panels and components, mitigating environmental impacts and steering Australia towards a sustainable future.

Government Investment for Change: Recognizing the urgency, the NSW Government has committed a $10 million fund to facilitate the state’s transition to a circular economy for renewable energy sources. This financial support underscores the commitment to building sustainable supply chains and reducing the ecological footprint associated with the renewable energy sector.

Research Insights: As part of a comprehensive project led by PV Industries and funded by the NSW Environment Protection Authority, ISF conducted groundbreaking research with three key outputs:

  1. An up-to-date material flow and spatial model to estimate resource recovery potential in Australia.
  2. A comprehensive survey of approximately 50 installers to understand decommissioning and end-of-life management practices.
  3. Interviews with industry, policy, and academic experts to evaluate reuse market opportunities and identify barriers and enablers.

The Path to Circular Economy: Establishing a circular economy for PV systems involves transformative changes across the supply chain. This includes promoting circular design and manufacturing, maximizing product lifetimes through maintenance and repair, instituting high-value recycling, and minimizing landfilling.

Opportunities and Challenges: The research underscores the significant opportunity for PV system reuse in Australia. However, challenges lie in an under-developed domestic second-hand market and an unregulated export market to low- and middle-income regions. This poses a risk of exporting a waste problem if destination countries lack the infrastructure to manage these products at the end of their lifecycle.

Enabling Reuse Pathways: To unlock the potential of reuse pathways, the research emphasizes the need to:

  1. Establish definitions and criteria for reusability.
  2. Develop new standards for repairing and testing second-hand systems.
  3. Provide information and assurances for customers purchasing second-hand.
  4. Ensure emerging reverse logistics solutions are designed to facilitate reuse.
  5. Develop new financial incentives for repaired and tested systems to be cost-competitive.

Conclusion: As we stand at the forefront of sustainable energy practices, embracing circular economy principles for PV systems is not just a choice; it is a necessity. Through collaborative efforts, informed policymaking, and strategic investments, we can usher in a future where renewable energy technologies contribute to a circular and sustainable economy. The journey has begun, and the destination promises a cleaner, greener, and more resilient tomorrow.

Click here to access the findings in full.

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