Sunday read: Out of landfill, back in the stream


From pv magazine 10/2021

For a little over a decade Joe Amajouyi has been shipping second-hand solar PV panels from Australia to Nigeria. However, a 300% rise in freight costs triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic has forced him to put the export operation on hold.

Amajouyi, owner of JNL Auto Scrap in the Australian state of Queensland, has established a supply chain to acquire and export used PV panels to the African continent. In recent years he has been shipping an estimated 2,000 modules a month to Nigeria, but the Covid-induced increase in ocean freight costs has halted his export operation. While exports have stopped, Amajouyi continues to stockpile used solar panels in anticipation of resuming operations when margins improve.

“We’ve been shipping offshore for 11 years,” Amajouyi said. “Probably three 40-foot containers per month with about 700-800 panels in each, depending on the size of the panels.

“The shipping costs are very expensive now. We can’t afford it. Before we used to pay $5,000 per 40-foot container, but now the price has tripled so we’re not doing much now. I’m still buying and when the price comes down, I will start shipping again.”

Amajouyi sources second-hand panels with 190-370 kW nameplate capacity via online buy/sell/swap sites, paying from $7 to $22 (AUD$10-$30) per panel. Those panels are collected at his Queensland depot and delivered to his warehouse in Nigeria and from there they are sold into the local market.

The second-hand modules are sold without warranty, but the Nigerian-born Amajouyi said there is a strong demand for them in a nation plagued by erratic power supply and a widespread dependence on self-generation.

“Whatever we collect, we ship across, nothing is going to landfill.” he said. “We buy them, clean them, put them in the container, and send them to Africa. If we didn’t buy them, they are wasted, people are putting them in the rubbish and these panels are still good to use.”

Waste stream

The panels being stockpiled are part of an increasing stream of modules coming off of roofs in Australia as the nation’s renewable energy market matures. Australia’s embrace of rooftop solar has been an unmitigated success. After little more than a decade since the initial surge in solar installations, the nation has the fastest rate of solar uptake in the world and is ranked No.1 for installed PV per capita.

At the end of June 2021 there were more than 2.86 million residential, commercial, and large-scale solar PV installations across Australia, with the nation’s Clean Energy Regulator (CER) recording a combined capacity of more than 22.3 GW. The clear majority are small-scale systems with more than 14.5 GW of solar PV installed on Australian rooftops.

More than 90% of that capacity has been installed in the past decade and therein lies a major issue. The average lifespan of a solar panel is between 15 and 25 years, and many of those original panels are nearing end of life or have been superseded by newer, higher efficiency technologies.

In 2018 Australians generated 2,700 tons of PV waste as the earliest modules reached their end of life. It is estimated more than 100,000 tons of modules will enter the national waste stream by 2035. By 2050, it’s expected there will be 1.5 million tons of solar panel waste in Australia.

Some in the industry have warned this number could rise as increasingly large volumes of solar panels are removed prematurely as consumers seek to upgrade systems or replace damaged modules.

Premature removal

Glen Morris, manager of the Smart Energy Lab and a former vice president of Australia’s Smart Energy Council, said almost-new panels are being discarded by consumers as technological advances increase efficiency and reduce costs of new modules. Others are being removed in response to Australia’s regulatory landscape with economic incentives designed to increase the uptake of solar, encouraging consumers to replace their existing solar array prematurely.

“I’m seeing them come off after three or four years,” Morris said. “Partly because of limited space on a roof but also because of the structure of the rebates. You might have a perfectly good system that you want to upgrade but the rebate only applies to new panels on a whole new system. You can’t just add a few more panels and get the rebate.

“The STCs [Small-Scale Technology Certificates] initiative effectively encourages the removal of perfectly good systems to be replaced with a new one. The rules encourage that, they basically make you do it because of the financial disincentive to keep an existing system.”

Stephen Cornthwaite, director of New South Wales South Coast-based solar installation business Micro Energy Systems Australia (MESA), has also observed an increase in the quantity of still-serviceable solar panels being discarded prematurely, estimating up to 70% of decommissioned panels are being removed before the manufacturer’s performance warranty has expired.

“Some of these panels are under five-years old,” he said. “And what happens to all these panels? A lot of them are going [to landfill]. A lot of them stay with the customers and they can’t find a place for them, and you see a lot on those second-hand sites. The rest are being stockpiled by installers. I’ve got about 500 panels in store after five years and that’s just a drop in the bucket if you multiply it by the number of installers in Australia.”

Reuse emerging

That stockpile of decommissioned panels is fuelling a solar recycling industry, but it remains in its infancy with the most advanced of the operations having only recently commenced the actual processing.

Cornthwaite welcomed the recycling operations but said they remain economically prohibitive and do not consider the remaining useful life of most of the discarded components.

“There will always be place for the IMR (industrial materials recycling) facilities and it’s really good that we are spending money on figuring out ways to actually recycle… but it is expensive. It’s about $30 a panel so we’re looking for a solution,” Cornthwaite said. “We’re looking at ways of intercepting the waste before it even gets to the point where it needs to be recycled.

“What we’ve found is about 70% of the panels are reusable. The aim is to get panels that have been taken off the roof and put them back into the stream, but do it so it’s regulated and somebody has to wear the responsibility for recertification and somehow ensure that they are installed by accredited installers.”

MESA has applied for funding to establish a pilot program designed to prove the feasibility of intercepting discarded solar waste prior to materials recycling.

“The initiative would accept used solar panels and associated components, effectively intercepting them prior to reaching landfill,” Cornthwaite said. “A percentage of the equipment would then be tested, certified and put back into the working stream with warranty. Systems would be packaged together for low-income households and for use with small offgrid and camping applications. Some of the re-classified components that have not yet reached their true end of life will be re-purposed.”

Cornthwaite said there is currently no effective testing regime in place to supply recertification for modules that are still under manufacturers’ warranty but have been taken off roofs. “What we’re doing is filling a hole, setting up a pilot to show that there is a way we can do this,” he said.

The project would also develop a business model and testing methodology to activate a secondary marketplace for decommissioned solar panels. “I’m hoping that at the end of the process we can have a stack of recertified second-hand panels that are good to go,” Cornthwaite said.

The proposal is not without challenges. Most solar panels qualify for federal and/or state government rebates and incentives but they are not currently applicable with used panels. Any panel that is to be reused in Australia would also have to meet required safety and installation standards.

Cornthwaite acknowledged the challenges but said removing panels before they have paid back the environmental cost involved with manufacturing, distributing, and installing them undermines the integrity of the solar industry.

“If you take the panel out of the useful life stream before that then you are basically destroying the integrity of the industry,” he continued. “The solar industry is not about making money, it’s not about creating power to the people, it’s about a response to an imperative environmental need.

“The deficit involved with not recycling is extreme if the panel has an end of life that has not been reached. If it’s still got manufacturer’s warranty and it’s still useful, it should go back into the stream.”

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