For Clive Fleming, getting development approval for his business, Reclaim PV Recycling, to set up Australia’s first large-scale PV recycling plant – and taking out a long-term lease on an industrial property near Adelaide, Australia – is a major milestone after years of research and logistical modeling. He aims to stop broken or end-of-life solar panels from going to landfill.
With the facility site secured, Fleming is now kickstarting a nationwide collection network for his business by sending a call to industry operators around Australia to nominate their business sites as recycling depots. Participants need about 48 square meters of free space, and must be willing to store up to three pallets of used solar panels. Around the three-pallet mark, Reclaim PV will organize pickup of the panels and transport them to Adelaide. However, Fleming is also looking to secure panel-processing sites in other states.
“Having a network of drop-off sites will significantly reduce the costs of transporting the panels to our warehouses and recycling facilities, compared to picking up 10 panels here, 15 panels there,” Fleming told pv magazine Australia.
In 2015, Sustainability Victoria estimated that Australia’s installed solar infrastructure has a 15- to 35-year expected lifetime. So the waves of end-of-life panels are not expected to hit the dirt for another decade or so. After pursuing grant-funded research into the best methods of separating the solar sandwich of materials bound together by adhesives such as ethyl vinyl acetate, Reclaim PV developed a recycling process using pyrolysis – the staged application of heat in a furnace to peel away or melt the various components of the panels which are then recovered, sorted and sold to materials companies for reuse.
For the past few years, Reclaim PV has been processing a test trickle of around 10,000 panels per annum, partnering with major manufacturers such as Q Cells, Suntech, Canadian Solar, and Yingli. Those companies pay to recycle their solar panels that have failed under warranty or been damaged in transit.
The proportion of materials potentially recoverable from solar panels is typically glass (75%), aluminum (8%), silicon (5%), copper (1%) and smaller amounts of silver, tin, lead and other components.
A 2016 study jointly prepared by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that 78 million tons of raw materials – with a combined value of $15 billion – could be recovered from solar panels throughout the world by 2050. The alternative is that solar waste left in landfill can leach materials – such as tin, lead and cadmium – into groundwater, causing health and environmental concerns.
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