Australia is a world leader in rooftop solar installations: in recent years it has built new renewable energy infrastructure at a rate ten times faster than the global per-capita average. But while Australia rides a wave of renewables, its solar industry is facing a looming waste problem as first-generation solar panels near the end of their working life.
A mind-boggling 100,000 tonnes of used solar panels in Australia could be headed to landfill by 2035 unless budding solar recyclers step up to the challenge. What’s more, the projected surge in discarded solar panels will probably arrive sooner than expected, says Pablo Dias, a renewable energy engineer at the University of NSW. This is because the actual average lifetime of solar panels in Australia is around 15 to 20 years, not the usual 25 to 30 years that manufacturers guarantee.
“It’s crucial that Australia sets itself up today and not when the waste panels arrive,”
Pablo Dias, University of NSW
It’s not that they are lasting less than we expect them to, says Dias, but rather that solar panels are easily damaged during transport, installation or by hail storms, and people opt to replace older modules with higher-efficiency ones. Large solar farms built a decade ago and early rooftop solar units will soon be reaching the end of their working lives, too.
Lifetime models due to three primary reasons for decommissioning of PV modules in Australia. Credit: Estimating the Lifetime of Solar Photovoltaic Modules in Australia / mdpi
This means the next few years are crunch time for Australia’s solar industry – which is racing to work out how to recycle solar panels at scale from far-flung renewable energy projects located hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres from the first city-based recycling facilities.
“It’s crucial that Australia sets itself up today and not when the waste panels arrive,” says Dias, who specialises in e-waste recycling. “If we need to wait for enough volume to ensure profitable business out of this, it will be too late.”
Realising the value
Solar panel recycling companies are popping up all around the country. Although some businesses remain tight-lipped about their patented solar recycling technologies, the value that lies in discarded solar panels is plain to see, albeit hard to get to.
In crystalline solar panels, which dominate the solar industry, light-absorbing solar cells containing silver, copper, high-purity silicon and small amounts of hazardous lead are sandwiched between a front glass panel and a plastic backsheet, and wedged into a recyclable aluminium frame.
Sorting through recycled materials is a costly exercise, though, so recyclers are vying to develop processes to shred, crush or pull apart solar panels and cleanly separate out the component materials.
The purchase of recycling machinery for Australia’s first solar panels recycling facility, Lotus Energy Recycling Plant, 2020. Credit: Lotus Energy
The solar cell metals are the most valuable components, but just a tiny fraction of the whole panel. Recovering them could yield huge energy savings and environmental benefits, though, because for every kilogram of metal recycled, one less kilogram needs to be mined anew. Same goes for glass and aluminium production.
“This is a hard nut we have to crack,” says Clive Fleming, director of Reclaim PV Recycling, one of several solar panel recycling companies in Australia that have stepped up their operations in recent months.
“This was at a time …….