Solutions for end-of-life solar panels being researched

University of South Australia

Monday, 27 March, 2023

Solutions for end-of-life solar panels being researched

Australia’s renewable energy sector is facing a quandary: how the nation will dispose of 80 million solar panels in an environmentally friendly way when they reach end of life.

People are installing solar photovoltaic (PV) panels to help the environment, but the industry now faces the anticipated waste that will be generated by 100,000 tonnes of panels due to be dismantled in Australia from 2035.

A University of South Australia (UniSA)-led study has proposed a product stewardship scheme for solar panels, which was prioritised by the federal government several years ago.

In a paper published in AIMS Energy, UniSA researcher Peter Majewski said incentives are needed for producers to design solar panels that can be more easily recycled.

“Australia has one of the highest uptakes of solar panels in the world, which is outstanding, but little thought has been given to the significant volume of panels ending up in landfill 20 years down the track when they need to be replaced,” Majewski said.

With landfill bans already in place in Victoria, installers have had to start thinking of recyclable materials when making the panels. Majewski said landfill bans are a powerful tool but require legislation to ensure waste is not just diverted to locations with fewer regulations.

Serial numbers that can track a history of solar panels could also help to monitor their recycling use and ensure they are disposed of in an environmentally friendly way.

“Several European nations have legislation in place for electric car manufacturers to ensure they are using materials that allow 85% of the car to be recycled at the end of their life. Something similar could be legislated for solar panels,” Majewski said.

A primary material used in solar cells is silicon, which is the second most abundant material on Earth after oxygen and the most common conductor used in computer chips. Because there is such a large demand for silicon, it is important to recycle it and reduce its environmental footprint.

“About three billion solar panels are installed worldwide, containing about 1.8 million tons of high-grade silicon, the current value of which is US$7.2 billion. Considering this, recycling of solar PV panels has the potential to be commercially viable,” Majewski said.

A potential solution is reusing panels, but users will need guarantees that second-hand panels will work properly and provide a minimum capacity in watts.

According to Majewski, any end-of-life legislation will need to address existing and new panels and support the creation of a second-hand economy.

A levy on the panels may also be needed to help finance an end-of-life scheme.

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