Solar photovoltaic (PV) power users, utility-scale and rooftop users alike, will have to start thinking about, and develop, ways in which the waste of solar power generation facilities will be managed at the end of their lives.
In terms of the industry’s regulatory requirements, the solar industry will have to comply with the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations, which are currently in a draft form for public comment, as well as the National Environmental Management: Waste Act of 2008.
The EPR regulations will soon extend to the electronic and electrical components industry and therefore renewables and the components used in the sector, as solar waste is classified as hazardous, falling under electric and electronic products.
However, consultancy Urban Elements and electrical component recycler Reclite SA founder Patricia Schröder says the industry will need additional legislative support for compliant takeback systems and access to waste.
With many African countries needing to establish norms and standards for managing solar industry waste at the end of its life, as well as the high cost involved with recycling these components, she says it makes sense for an African and sub-regional approach to justify the costs involved in solar PV component recycling.
Of all e-waste generated, about 4% to 5% comprises solar products, which seems low, but the number will continue to increase as more projects come on line in the next few years.
University of KwaZulu-Natal research engineer Dr Mark Wynn states that PV panels have a life expectancy of between 20 and 50 years, although they often incur damaged housings before then.
“We have only been installing solar panels for the last two decades and there have not been huge amounts of waste coming through and, therefore, we have not thought about how all this waste will be managed,” he avers.
As South Africa moves away from fossil fuels to renewable energy generation, the types of businesses related to recycling will have to be set up – a whole value chain has to be set up – from collectors, transporters, separators to recyclers and offtakers, says Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries hazardous waste management and licensing chief director Mishelle Govender.
She adds that this value chain setup will require constant communication between government and industry on what will be an effective waste management system towards establishing a solar recycling value chain.
Govender explains that EPR involves producers being given responsibility either physically or financially for the treatment of post-consumer products.
“South Africa is disposing of in excess of 85-million tonnes of waste a year and landfill space is limited in many parts of the country; hence, the department is looking at how it can divert as much waste as possible from landfill.
“EPR states that the producer has to find ways to collect, reuse, recycle, treat, refurbish or repair their products. Producers must therefore design for maximum recyclability and ensure that the principles of the circular economy are adhered to,” she points out.
She adds that producers will need to engage in partnerships to establish collection systems for solar waste, as well as for recycling initiatives to advance these processes.
“We also need to consider demand for the recycled product and producers either buying the finished products back themselves or look to develop sectors that will purchase the recycled material and use it in another form.”
For the growing solar industry in South Africa, getting the products back to producers is tricky, since many components are manufactured overseas. There are, however, some locally produced products such as solar panels, inverters, mountings and batteries.
Govender notes that the panels’ plastics, glass and silicone components can be relatively easily recycled; however, it is an energy intensive process and may end up being costly for a producer, while the aluminium mountings may be a cheaper part of the process, considering that there is an established recycling sector for the metal in the country.
For the most part, lithium-ion batteries are recyclable, but South Africa does not have the facilities for it, because the batteries are often imported. She highlights that there are valuable metals to be recovered from these batteries, including cobalt, copper and nickel, which still has value.
But, not all the products are equal in terms of intrinsic economic value, or hazardous content and end-of-life risks and each one would need to be considered respectively.
Although it is uncertain how designing for maximum recyclability or reusability will be imposed for foreign manufacturers, in South Africa producers of components will soon have to look carefully at what raw materials are used to manufacture components, panels or whole solar power systems.
Schröder says that, apart from the logistical and financial challenges that will undoubtedly come with solar product recycling, there is also significant opportunity for skills development, job creation and revenue for producers if the right offtake markets are developed.
She adds that it also provides an opportunity to create awareness about solar PV products and how domestic users can go about disposing of their components at the end of its lives, since heading into rural areas for collection will be a challenge.
Currently, the only licensed PV waste management service provider in South Africa is Reclite SA, which issues a recycling certificate to a customer if a quote is successfully fulfilled.
She says the cost per panel to recycle is about R200, or R100 per square meter, when working on a 1 200 panel per week recycling scale at the recycler.
Schröder says the volumes of solar waste are not yet sufficient to justify the cost of recycling for a producer or customer.
Wynn agrees that the amount of product that can be recovered from solar panels is insufficient to justify the cost.
Schröder suggests that the solar PV industry set up a producer responsibility organisation to implement the EPR scheme on behalf of producers, importers or manufacturers.
Assigning such a responsibility for the collection, transportation, repair, refurbishment and recycling of products could in principle provide incentives to prevent waste going to landfill, promote environmental protection and support the achievement of consumer recycling.
On the other hand, a producer responsibility organisation can also just assist producers with meeting their EPR targets through various key stakeholders within the value chain in the country.
The organisation is then responsible for setting up and manging the value chain mechanisms for the targeted waste material and to create awareness of the need to recycl electrical and electronic waste.