Solar Panel Waste to Reach Crisis Levels in Next Two to Three Years, Australian Experts Warn

Solar Panel Waste to Reach Crisis Levels

Australian experts have issued a warning that solar panel waste will reach critical levels within the next two to three years. This alarming forecast comes from a recent white paper led by Rong Deng, a renewable energy engineering researcher at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

The paper indicates that the situation is far more urgent than previously thought, with earlier predictions estimating the crisis would occur by 2030. The rapid increase in solar panel waste is attributed to two main factors.

Firstly, Victoria is the only state in Australia that has banned the disposal of solar panels in landfills. Secondly, the high cost of recycling solar panels, ranging from $10 to $20 per panel, discourages recycling efforts.

Additionally, the technology needed to efficiently extract valuable materials from the panels is currently lacking. Pablo Ribeiro Dias, cofounder of Solarcycle, a solar recycling company, explained that most commercial recyclers only remove the aluminium frame and wiring from the panels, while the glass is simply shredded.

The complex design of solar panels, which are made to be watertight and weatherproof, makes it difficult to recover valuable materials like silicon, silver, and copper. The white paper outlines a 12-year plan to address these issues.

Key recommendations include:

  • Developing advanced technologies for extracting valuable metals
  • Establishing recycling centres in major cities
  • Implementing a product stewardship scheme for photovoltaics

This scheme, set to be introduced in 2025, may mandate recycling and hold manufacturers financially responsible for the disposal of end-of-life panels. While Deng is confident that these recommendations will be implemented, she expressed concerns about meeting the proposed timelines.

She highlighted that Australia’s recycling infrastructure is currently weak, partly because much of the country’s waste was previously exported to China until 2016. Richard Kirkman, CEO of Veolia Australia and New Zealand, emphasised the need for government investment in pilot projects to ensure solar panels are designed for easier recycling and to develop large-scale recycling processes.

He believes that effective recycling can support the Australian lifestyle by recovering and reusing precious metals and rare earth elements from discarded panels. In response to these concerns, the federal government has announced a $1 billion funding boost to increase the production of Australian-made solar panels, potentially leading to designs that facilitate easier recycling.

Currently, 90% of solar panels used in Australia are imported from China. Renate Egan, executive director of the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics at UNSW, noted that earlier predictions did not account for the high rate of residential solar panel installations in Australia.

With one in three homes generating solar energy, many panels are replaced frequently due to evolving electrical safety standards. Jeff Angel, executive director of the Total Environment Centre, criticised the slow pace of government action and the renewables industry’s reliance on voluntary schemes.

He called for a more decisive regulatory approach, stressing the importance of ensuring that all decommissioned solar panels are collected and recycled. Angel warned against repeating past mistakes, where initial recycling targets were set too low and growth was slow.

He emphasised the need for urgent and comprehensive action to prevent the irresponsible disposal of solar panels in landfills.

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