April 15, 2024

The solar industry is quickly approaching its tipping point, with unprecedented levels of waste headed for the tip.

Solar panel waste levels will reach a crisis point in the next two to three years instead of by 2030, as was previously forecast, according to a white paper released this week.

Led by Rong Deng, a renewable energy engineering researcher at the University of NSW, the paper predicted that if the production of solar panels expands by five to 10 times, as is hoped, “we will run out of the world’s reserves of silver in just two decades”.

“If it’s happening right now, [we] need to do something,” Deng said.

The immense scale of waste comes down to two factors. Victoria is the only state to have banned the disposal of solar panels in landfill, and the cost to recycle solar panels – $10 or $20 per panel – disincentivises recycling. Additionally, for panels that are recycled, the technologies needed to extract valuable materials is not available.

Most commercial solar panel recyclers simply remove the aluminium frame and the wiring, and shred the glass, Pablo Ribeiro Dias, the cofounder of Solarcycle, a solar recycling and sustainability company, said.

The design of solar panels, akin to a “fused, watertight, weatherproof sandwich”, made extracting valuable materials, such as silicon, silver and copper, and turning them into usable components difficult, Deng said.

The white paper outlined a 12-year industry roadmap, which included developing sophisticated technologies to extract valuable metals, establishing recycling centres in various metropolitan areas and the development of a product stewardship scheme for photovoltaics.

The product stewardship scheme will be introduced in 2025, and could mandate recycling (or penalise not recycling) and make solar panel manufacturers financially responsible for the disposal of end-of-life panels, the paper suggested.

Deng said she was confident the suggestions of the roadmap would be implemented, but was less confident that they would be implemented in the recommended timeframes.

She said Australia lacked a “strong recycling infrastructure”, and attributed this to waste being exported to China prior to 2016.

Richard Kirkman, the chief executive of energy and waste recycling management service Veolia Australia and New Zealand, said the federal government needed to invest in pilot projects to ensure solar panels were designed to be easy to recycle and develop large-scale processes to recycle solar panels.

“If we get this right we can close this loop in a way that will underpin the Australian way of life for generations with the recovery and recycling of the precious metals and rare earths inside discarded end-of-life panels,” he said.

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The federal government announced on Friday a $1bn funding boost aimed at increasing the number of Australian-made solar panels, which may increase the number of solar panels designed in a manner that makes recycling easier. Currently, 90% of solar panels used in Australia are imported from China.

Renate Egan, the executive director of the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics based at the University of NSW, said previous predictions did not consider that two-thirds of Australian solar panels were installed on residential rooftops and were frequently replaced. One in three Australian homes generate solar energy, the highest per capita of any country.

She said some Australians were switching out their solar panels prematurely due to changing electrical safety standards, which has meant that older solar panels might not be deemed safe.

Jeff Angel, the executive director of the Total Environment Centre, blamed relaxed recycling regulations on a slow-moving government bureaucracy and the renewables industry’s proposals of voluntary schemes.

“The current crop of environment ministers are not entranced by voluntary programs,” he said. “So I do think there’s potential to move quicker.”

Angel called for the product stewardship scheme to regulate faster and more decisively than past schemes. He said it was “critical” that all the decommissioned solar panels were actually collected.

“It would be completely irresponsible to keep sending solar panels to landfill.”

“We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of previous schemes where they aimed [to recycle] a small percentage in the first five years and grow slowly from there,” he said.

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