Australia’s renewable energy sector seems to have hit a roadblock on how to dispose of 80 million solar panels in the most environmentally-friendly way possible.
In Victoria, most of the solar panels being recycled are from schools where state governments upgraded or replaced around 500 solar panel systems, whilst the rest are from homes, businesses, or solar farms in the rural part of the state.
Queenslanders have recently been banned from dumping solar panels in landfills within the decade under a new recycling expansion program.
Grappling with the anticipated waste
As more homeowners and business owners install solar PV panels, the waste accumulates—specifically, the thousands of solar panels that are almost at the end of their life following the solar boom in 2000.
Solar panels are set to be dismantled and disposed of across the country by 2035, but what is the best way to do this?
It’s not that easy
Recycling solar panels isn’t easy; when reusing them, the solar panels should be broken down to separate each component. To do this, it will take a lot of heavy machinery work. Other materials can be sold and used in new products.
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The risks of solar panels
Solar panels have a lot of advantages, but they also come with risks—particularly the materials used to make them. Weatherproof polymers pose environmental risks because, when burned, they release hydro-fluorite gas, which harms our health.
Silicon is another material used in solar cells, and there is a huge demand for it; hence, recycling silicon solar panels is more important than ever.
Studies lead to possible solutions
The University of South Australia has proposed a product stewardship scheme for solar panels. The study concludes that incentives are necessary for producers to design solar panels that are easily recyclable.
UniSA researcher Professor Peter Majewski said, “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.”
Landfill bans are also effective as more states implement them. However, it requires legislation to ensure the waste ends up in the right locations.
Serial numbers that track the history of solar panels can also help determine recycling use and ensure they are disposed of in the safest way possible.
The recovery of other materials in solar panels is also being studied, and researchers from Deakin University in Geelong have found a way to reduce silicon into nanoparticles without using harmful chemicals.
John Polhill from Sustainability Victoria said, “Recycling solar panels in Australia is in its infancy. So it needs continuous investment from both industry and from the government to support this developing market and some of the technologies as well.”
The importance of recycling old solar panels
Macquarie University has estimated that the country will accumulate a million tonnes of solar panel waste by 2047, likely increasing as more people switch to solar energy.
Old and broken panels are not advisable to be left in landfills because solar panels contain toxic chemicals, such as lead, that can leak out.
Certain solar panel components can be recycled easily. Fortunately, 95 per cent of a solar panel can be recycled, whilst 80 per cent of crystalline silicon can be recovered via a refined process.
A spokesperson for the Department of Climate Change, Energy, and Environment, and Water says the government is working with stakeholders to design a solar system waste scheme.
“Timing will of course depend on the regulatory design work currently being undertaken, which is important to get right.”
Where to recycle solar panels in AU?
There are designated plants spread across the country where you can take your old solar panels to. Keep in mind that the services may come with an additional cost because the process has yet to be streamlined.
What you can do now
As the country maps out a solid strategy to better recycle solar panels, there are a few things you can do that will significantly impact the environment.
- Pay for e-waste disposal: Most areas in the country have an e-waste program, except Victoria. Your local waste disposal facility will dispose of the solar panel in the e-waste section of the tip.
- Sell them: This solution applies to solar panels that are still working. You can sell them online or to people you know.
- Use them for camping: If you have a caravan, you can add your old solar panels to the roof or modified to be their own standing solar panel for a campsite.
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