On a recent visit to the local rubbish tip, Dr Nick Engerer – the founder and CEO of solar data services company Solcast – was struck by an increasingly familiar sight: a stack of perfectly functional, discarded solar panels.
Engerer, who lives on a rural property in northern New South Wales, takes a trailer of his own rubbish to the tip around once a month. On each of the last three visits, he tells One Step Off The Grid, he has been confronted by a similar sight. And it’s starting to bother him.
The problem of what to do with solar panels that have come to the end of their useful lives has been in the spotlight in Australia lately, with the establishment of the first of the nation’s dedicated PV recycling outfits, and a less than helpful deadline from the federal environment minister.
But what about those panels with life still left in them?
As Australia enters its second decade of booming residential solar uptake, the incidence of solar households upgrading to more powerful, less expensive and more productive systems is on the rise.
In the vast majority of cases, however, the panels they are replacing wind up at the tip, despite having no actual defects and many good years of solar power generation left in them.
So why are we throwing them away?
Haunted by the most recent stack of discarded panels (pictured above), Dr Engerer – an entrepreneur and meteorologist by qualification, whose CV includes a stint as a lecturer at the Australian National University – turned to LinkedIn for some answers.
“It’s impressive we’ve been able to make #solarpower so cheap, that binning them after a few years is affordable – but is it ethical? It’s certainly not environmentally conscious,” he wrote.
“What’s the fix? …Obviously, scrapping solar panels at the tip is not the right process. These 250W panels easily have 15 years of life left in them. I myself am running my off-grid solar set-up with reclaimed panels, and they work wonderfully.
“Perhaps this trend of low cost residential solar panels is a business opportunity? …Who out there is making a buck on 2nd hand solar? If you’re not already, who wants to start?”
The response from the LinkedIn community was swift and resounding: It’s not waste until it’s wasted – and Australia is wasting a massive opportunity to re-use second-hand solar panels, both as a way to prevent them from going to landfill and as a major market opportunity.
There is, of course, the beginnings of a used solar market already. As Engerer put it, there’s that educated and resourceful 5-10% of cases who know there is still value in their old panels and turn to eBay or Gumtree to find an equally savvy buyer.
And in some waste management facilities, like that which Engerer patronises, the proprietors know enough – or can be advised by regular clients – to salvage the panels and offer them for sale in the tip shop; in the most recent case, for the bargain price of $10 a panel.
In the vast majority of other cases, Engerer estimates there are hundreds of thousands of still productive PV modules that are “heading for a long dirt nap” due to a lack of other ready options.
“While other solar system components like inverters tend to go through a hardware failure, modules go through a slow degradation process,” he told One Step on Thursday. “Clearly we are disposing of a resource that still has value in its life.
“The economics clearly stack up for home owners to re-do their solar systems, but there’s in no incentive to dispose of them in a more considered way.”
And while there are no clear financial incentives – or disincentives – to re-use second-hand panels, there is definitely a market. Just maybe not in Australia.
As a number of the comments pointed out on the LinkedIn thread, including several from the President of the Smart Energy Council, Steve Blume, the major barrier to establishing a formal second-hand market in Australia is regulatory.
“The biggest challenge in all of it would be getting them certified for re-use in home markets,” Engerer says. “If you go down the route of trying to regulate it, that creates barriers.”
But Engerer is not convinced that a domestic second-hand market is the way to go. At least not at first. Rather, he sees the potential as lying overseas.
And he’s not the only one. According to a January article in US-based publication Solar Power World, a buyer’s market for second-hand panels spans throughout the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Afghanistan is currently the top market followed by Pakistan. Other major markets include Djibouti, Somalia and Ethiopia in Africa,” the article says.
“Buyers in these areas aren’t so much concerned about purchasing modules with no warranty because they have enough sun radiation (two-times more than temperate climates) that affords them ample energy production from used panels.”
This certainly gels with the feedback Engerer received to his LinkedIn post, with at least a dozen of the more than 100 comments and direct messages he received in response coming from people from Africa and Asia interested in buying the used panels.
“From my business person perspective, it screams non-profit to me,” Engerer told One Step. “These panels are going to go to the dump, where they’re going add to pollution.
“If there was a way to stop them going to landfill and instead ship them to developing countries, use them to build an off-grid system in a way that counts as a donation… That’s the kind of model, if I had to guess right now, that could take off.
“If you’ve got a picture of someone from an NGO standing next to an array of used Australian solar modules that is now helping to power a remote village somewhere – that’s gold, right there.”
Many of the comments on the LinkedIn thread take a similar view, some of them calling on fellow entrepreneurs, research groups, industry representatives and even the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to join forces to make it happen.
Engerer, for one, is confident that the idea has enough promise – and demand – that it could take off.
“According to the messages I received overnight from Africa, mostly, and some interest from south-east Asia, they want these panels,” he said. “Let’s see if we give this idea some legs!”
Certainly, there appears to be ready support from within the renewable energy industry, but as the SEC’s Blume noted on LinkedIn on Wednesday, there would also need to be support from governments, particularly in the case of establishing a domestic market for second-hand panels.
“First reuse and then recycle,” said Blume on Wednesday on LinkedIn. “[The] missing link – national leadership from our national government.
“The Smart Energy Council and the [Clean Energy Council] both offered workable national plans for industry led programs and were rejected by the Coalition government, which chose to politicise the issue as an attack against renewables. The SEC is moving ahead anyway,” he said.
“[There are] Plenty of local opportunities that can be taken, doing at the required scale is non-trivial, but entirely able to be done. Not optimally without a national approach!”
Over to you, ARENA, Angus Taylor, Sussan Ley…