Risk Insight

Towards a circular economy: Managing End of Life challenges for solar panels

construction of solar farm

    What you need to know:

    • Introducing PV solar into your organisation's renewable energy mix poses end of life management risks
    • Financial, environmental and social licence risks should be considered in any end of life management plan
    • The Australian Government is currently considering better ways to address end of life management issues through regulation and recycling programs.

    What you need to do:

    • Prior to the purchase and introduction of solar, assess your risk and legal implications associated with an end of life management plan

    Over two weeks in December representatives from 200 countries met at the COP 28 climate summit. A momentous deal was struck with all member states agreeing to "transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner… so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science"1. To help achieve this goal, countries also agreed to triple global renewable power capacity by 2030. The International Energy Agency has forecast that global renewable power capacity would need to yield a 16% year on year growth rate between 2024 and 2030 to reach this target2. In the years between 2010 and 2024, the global renewable power capacity growth rate has averaged 9% 2. Promisingly however, 2023 saw a 50 percent increase in the world's renewable energy capacity keeping us on track to achieve the tripling of renewable capacity by 2030.

    Whilst much attention is as expected being given to investment in grid infrastructure, procurement of raw materials and the building of supply chains to achieve the scale required, a burgeoning topic of discussion is the End of Life (EOL) use for renewable technologies coming online. Recently Neoen announced that the Degrussa solar and storage project, was to begin the process of decommissioning. At the time it was announced in 2016 the project was Australia's largest integrated off-grid solar and battery storage plant and it was commissioned to help power a copper mine in remote Western Australia. Now, eight years later, 34,080 solar panels in good condition are in need of finding a second life3 . We can expect that this will become a much more prevalent issue with the increasing uptake of solar and therefore an EOL solution at scale is required.

    Most solar panels coming onto the market, experience a gradual loss of efficiency losing approximately 0.5% of their power output every year meaning that they have an average lifespan of 25 to 30 years before degradation becomes too great for most use cases. Many of the systems coming online today will be drawing close to their EOL or will have already been replaced by 2050. In Australia, up to 90 percent of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels go to landfill4. With a growing number of industries and sectors introducing solar technology into its energy mix over the next few years to help met net zero emissions targets; Australia could be left with between 300,000 and 450,000 tonnes of solar panel waste by 20405. Governments, renewable energy developers, investors, utilities and other industry stakeholders risk being stranded with renewable energy infrastructure that currently there is no adequate solution to reuse or dispose of in an environmentally sustainable way.

    Solar panels contain valuable materials including silver, copper, crystalline silicon, aluminium and glass, all of which may be recycled to produce other products or even next generation solar panels6. According to the Institute for Sustainable Futures, much more effort is needed to develop reuse and recycling solutions that can recover the valuable materials reducing the volume of solar waste ending in landfill and creating additional value creation opportunities for the industry7. Current barriers include a lack of economic drivers for installers, low awareness of recycling services and a need to raise awareness and implement financial incentives to encourage greater participation in reuse and recycling activities8.

    With the development of new technologies to more efficiently dispose of solar panels and as new systems with longer lifespans come into the market, this may help shift some of the waste burden away from landfill. However significant challenges will likely remain for some time before circularity in the industry can adequately account for the volume of solar waste being produced.

    It's for this reason, the Australian Government is currently considering better ways to address EOL management issues through regulation and recycling programs. In Europe, South Korean, Japan and the USA there are PV-specific EOL regulations, recycling activities and R&D projects underway. In Australia a scheme that may require all stakeholders in the supply chain down to the end user to have shared responsibility of EOL management is being considered9.

    For your organisation, a decision to introduce or increase the number of PV solar panels in your energy mix should therefore also include considering EOL management. An EOL management process initiated upfront of a purchase that is risk and legal focused, will allow for proper consideration of the benefits and costs associated with the inclusion of PV solar into your energy mix.

    There are a number of financial, environmental and social licence considerations that must be accounted for through this process. These considerations may include, an assessment of the technologic developments in PV solar and how that may affect the EOL landscape at the point of decommissioning your solar assets. Decommissioning solar assets may also have considerable financial and social licence implications, both in the cost associated with the decommissioning and with your workforce management strategies. Other considerations may include modern slavery implications of solar procurement, traditional owner engagement and environmental impacts pertaining to parcels of purchased land for solar installation, and the Green House Gas emissions impact associated with solar waste being diverted to landfill. Taking a holistic view now of your EOL solar management strategy through a Risk and Legal lens may result in significant cost savings and mitigate adverse environmental and reputational risks resulting from solar decommissioning.

    Other author: James McHugh, Ashurst Risk Advisory.


    1. Nations strike deal at COP28 to transition away from fossil fuels | Reuters
    2. Our top 5 implications of COP28 for corporates and investors | Article | ING Think
    3. Neoen calls time on pioneering off-grid solar and battery project, decommissions Degrussa | RenewEconomy
    4. Australia faces solar waste crisis - The University of Sydney
    5. A circular future for solar | University of Technology Sydney (uts.edu.au)
    6. As Millions of Solar Panels Age Out, Recyclers Hope to Cash In - Yale E360
    7. A circular future for solar | University of Technology Sydney (uts.edu.au)
    8. 2. Key Findings from Installer Survey_0.pdf (uts.edu.au)
    9. Australia working towards managing end of life for photovoltaic panels

    This publication is a joint publication from Ashurst Australia and Ashurst Risk Advisory Pty Ltd, which are part of the Ashurst Group.

    The Ashurst Group comprises Ashurst LLP, Ashurst Australia and their respective affiliates (including independent local partnerships, companies or other entities) which are authorised to use the name "Ashurst" or describe themselves as being affiliated with Ashurst. Some members of the Ashurst Group are limited liability entities.

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    This material is current as at 20 February 2024 but does not take into account any developments to the law after that date. It is not intended to be a comprehensive review of all developments in the law and in practice, or to cover all aspects of those referred to, and does not constitute legal advice. The information provided is general in nature, and does not take into account and is not intended to apply to any specific issues or circumstances. Readers should take independent legal advice. No part of this publication may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from Ashurst. While we use reasonable skill and care in the preparation of this material, we accept no liability for use of and reliance upon it by any person.

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