Experts call for Australia to step up PV recycling
In the next decade, dealing with redundant solar panels or photovoltaic (PV) modules may be a major waste issue for Australia. Solar power is one of the country’s leading renewable energy sources, with rooftop solar PV installed in more than 3.3 million homes. Approximately 90% of these systems might end up in landfill when they need to be replaced, with an International Energy Agency report estimating that Australia will generate 145,000 tonnes of waste from PV panels by 2030.
UNSW solar expert Richard Corkish, from the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics, based at UNSW Sydney’s School of Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy Engineering, said the principles of ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ should be applied to the end-of-life management of all PV modules.
Most solar panels have a lifespan of 25–30 years, so those installed more than 15 years ago will be approaching their end-of-life. PV researchers are trying to lengthen the life of the modules by making them more resilient to the environment, mostly moisture and oxygen.
“The goal is to extend the life, so they last up to 50 years, which means we won’t need to make nearly as many in the future. If we suddenly need to ramp up manufacturing, we’ll find there are some materials, including silver and aluminium, that will be at risk of being in low supply,” Corkish said.
Up to 95% of the materials used to make a solar panel can be recycled, such as silicon, aluminium frames and silver. The most common process of doing so in Australia results in the panels being put through a shredding machine and broken into smaller pieces, which are then down-cycled into other products.
Rong Deng, Research Fellow from the UNSW School of Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy Engineering, said the biggest problem with the current process is the inability to extract the rare metals while keeping costs down. These components need to be carefully separated to avoid contamination, as manufacturers will only reuse materials with high purity.
“But if continue down the path of using non-specialised technology to recycle PV modules, then we’ll still continue to end up with parts that are contaminated with other materials, which is not a sustainable solution,” Deng said.
Disposal and management of PV modules varies between states and territories, with only Victoria banning solar panels from landfill. Under a new proposed recycling expansion program, this will also be the case in Queensland in the next decade.
The cost of recycling is between $10 and $20 per panel, plus any freight or removal fees. This may be a deterrent to recycling in states that do not have a policy on recycling the panels.
“If you have a system of 10 panels on your roof, you’re going to pay at least $200 to dispose of them,” Deng said.
“The Australian Government have signalled potentially adding PV modules to the Product Stewardship Scheme. Similar schemes are already in place for other goods such as car tyres and plastic bottles.”
A Product Steward Scheme is an approach which involves taking responsibility for the full life cycle of a product. It promotes and supports the principles of circular economy and schemes can be voluntary, made mandatory by government or done in partnership with industry.
“There needs to a system in place where costs are recouped from the industry so that cost imposed on new modules can pay for the recycling of the old ones,” Corkish said.
Newer PV models allow homeowners to track and compare energy output through an online system or mobile app, but homes are prematurely upgrading systems well before they need to.
“Whilst there’s huge potential for reuse of PV modules, the lack of affordable testing to ensure the panels still meet electrical safety standards means many make their way to landfill,” Corkish said.
Australia is no stranger to the solar PV system. UNSW Engineering’s Professor Martin Green is a world-renowned expert, leading the development of market-dominating PERC technology which has improved the quality of both the top and the rear surface of standard silicon solar cells.
Deng recognises that recycling of PV modules in Australia is still in its infancy. She said there’s a lot to learn from European countries who are far ahead in addressing the problem.
Early adopters of small-scale rooftop PV systems, such as Germany and Netherlands, have been acting with much more urgency in terms of finding viable technologies to recycle older PV panels, which are coming up to their end-of-life phase.
“In Australia, we’re still waiting for the waste bomb that is predicted when all these PV modules come to the end-of-life, so there’s less incentive for local companies to invest in the technology.
“At some point, there will not be enough landfill to dispose of PV modules — nor will there be enough resources to build them. So, it’s imperative we find a sustainable solution to recycle them now,” Deng said.
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