Victorian photovoltaic panel systems material flow analysis

Last updated: 25 July 2022
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Prepared by: Randell Environmental Consulting
Prepared for: Sustainability Victoria and Solar Victoria
First published: December 2021

Context and objectives

In August 2021, Sustainability Victoria engaged Randell Environmental Consulting in association with Blue Environment to complete an electronic waste (e-waste) material flow analysis (MFA). The MFA was separated into 3 parts. Initially, this work focused on Victorian photovoltaic panel (PV) systems, for which the results are presented below.

The final 2 sections of this assessment are underway and expected later in the year. They will be published when finalised. The next section will focus on the e-waste categories indicated in the E-Product Stewardship in Australia Report released by the Australian Government, and the final part will focus on Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning (HVAC) units and Solar Hot Water Systems (SHWS).

This MFA builds on the model initially developed for Sustainability Victoria in 2015 before the Victorian e-waste landfill ban commenced 1 July 2019. In 2021 and later revised early 2022, the Australian Government released a differing MFA model that has since been adopted by the Queensland and South Australian governments. In the future, a consistent national approach would be beneficial.

Report findings

PV system consumption

Please note, the term “consumption” assumes that imported goods are sold and used in a timely manner and not stored for long periods.

  • PV system consumption is currently estimated 33 thousand tonnes per year, increasing to 94 thousand tonnes by 2035, a compound annual growth rate of 7%.
  • Of the 3 components of a PV system analysed, including panels, inverters, and PV batteries, panels dominate consumption (by tonnage) both now and into the future.
  • Since 2019, uptake of PV systems is rising rapidly, likely driven by decreasing panels costs and State-based incentive programs.
  • Over the next 15 years, PV panel uptake in Victoria is projected to increase from 27 to 65 thousand tonnes per year, a compound annual growth rate of 6%.
  • From 2025 onwards, Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are projected to be the dominant solar battery type, surpassing installed tonnages of lead acid batteries and nickel-cadmium batteries.
  • By 2035, a significant increase for inverter consumption from 6 to 27 thousand tonnes is also expected as micro inverters are trending over central inverters.

PV system end-of-life materials

  • In 2021, PV system including panels, inverters, and batteries, was estimated to generate around 3 thousand tonnes of end-of-life materials
  • By 2035, PV systems are projected to generate up to 26 thousand tonnes of end-of-life materials, a compound annual growth rate of 15%, with panels dominating the tonnages.
  • Over the next 15 years, panels reaching end-of-life are projected to increase from around 1.5 to 15 thousand tonnes per year, equating to almost a million panels a year.
  • From around 2025, battery tonnages are expected to grow rapidly with 2015 battery installations coming to end-of-life.
  • Although lead acid batteries (LAB) are expected to generate the highest tonnages of batteries, over the next 15 years, lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries are expected to increase from around 110 to 3,500 tonnes per year.
  • With a compound annual growth of 26%, Li-ion batteries are projected to have the highest end-of -life growth rate out of the 3 components of a PV system analysed.

PV systems end-of-life management

There are significant differences in end-of-life management between small (domestic) and large (commercial and industrial) PV system decommissioning. In 2021, PV systems (except batteries) are mainly recycled for their metal components, the e-waste component recovery is still low. Although metal recycling is crucial in Victoria, for PV systems end-of-life management, specialised e-waste reprocessing yields higher recovery rates.

E-waste reprocessors focus on recovering all major components of a PV system. For example, a panel has more than 90% recovery efficiency capturing metals, glass, and plastics through an e-waste reprocessor, compared to 26% for metal recycling alone.

In 2021, just over 1,800 tonnes of PV systems were estimated to be processed in Victoria by e-waste reprocessors and approximately 900 tonnes processed by metal recyclers.

With the metal, glass, and plastic content of a PV system, e-waste reprocessors are estimated to be able to achieve a recycling efficiency of 93% compared to 34% for metal recycling.

The report notes that although there is seemingly a higher recovery and recycling capability, if end markets are not available for the recycled outputs, recycling cannot be achieved.

Overall findings

For panel processing alone, industry has indicated that by 2025 there could be around 70,000 tonnes per year of processing capacity across Victoria. If this is the case, there would be enough capacity to manage Victoria’s projected PV panel waste.

With the significant increase in panels coming offline, processing capacity is imperative, but this report has also demonstrated that panel processing needs to be directed through the most efficient recycling processes. Although outside the scope of this report, the logistics of efficient recycling needs development in Victoria.

Download the full report

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