We all know the advantageous sides of solar panels. Sometimes, news comes up to let us know the concerning materials needed to make them. But one thing that becomes the widely discussed issue lately is the waste.
Solar experts at UNSW Sydney said that we’re in urgent need to develop technology to recycle important elements inside solar panels.
In Australia alone, solar power is one of the country’s leading renewable energy sources with rooftop solar PV installed in more than 3.3 million homes.
While it’s a good thing from climate-friendliness point of view now, an estimated 90% of these systems might ultimately end up in landfill once they need to be replaced. In 2016, the International Energy Agency reported that Australia would generate 145,000 tons of waste from photovoltaic (PV) panels by 2030
Dr Richard Corkish at UNSW Sydney’s School of Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy Engineering said that we should apply the good old 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) to PV modules, too.
“We’ve seen a huge uptake in both small-scale and large-scale PV deployment in the last decade as the world moves towards renewable energy sources. The industry standard for most solar panels’ lifespan is 25 to 30 years which means solar systems installed more than 15 years ago will soon be approaching their end-of-life,” Dr Corkish said.
The UNSW solar expert added that in the last decade, there’s been a trend of replacing solar panels in spite of being in perfect working condition. Instead of adding or tweaking the things that may be outdated, people have been convinced to replace them altogether.
The solar panel raves
Due to their benefits, more people are not gonna stop using solar energy anytime soon. Looking back in 2021, the world’s solar energy generation capacity grew by 22%. In the UK, around 13,000 photovoltaic solar panels are fitted every month, most of them on the roofs of private houses.
Most times, solar units become relatively uneconomical before they reach the end of their expected lifespan. New designs, however, are more efficient and have made it cheaper to replace solar panels that are only 10 or 15 years old with updated versions.
Indeed, newer models of PV systems enable homeowners to track and compare energy output through an online system or mobile app. But again, this convinces people to prematurely upgrade their solar systems and discard the old ones before the time.
“While 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. Sometimes the backsheets are the first thing to go but they can sometimes be repaired or replaced. If the diodes fail, they can be replaced too. Sometimes panels still haven’t reached their full life yet,” Dr Cornish said.
Replacing, not recycling
These trends, if continued, will result in massive scrap solar panels. Deputy director of the International Renewable Energy Agency Ute Collier said, “By 2030, we think we’re going to have four million tonnes [of scrap] – which is still manageable – but by 2050, we could end up with more than 200 million tonnes globally.”
Just to give us a picture, our planet currently produces an annual total of 400 million tons of plastic.
According to another UNSW solar expert Dr Rong Deng, “The world has installed more than one terawatt of solar capacity. Ordinary solar panels have a capacity of about 400W, so if you count both rooftops and solar farms, there could be as many as 2.5 billion solar panels.”
What’s worse, the first generation of domestic solar panels is only now coming to the end of its usable life. Urgent action is needed considering the volume of panels that’ll have been disposed of.
“It’s going to be a waste mountain by 2050, unless we get recycling chains going now,” Collier said.
Banning and other policies
There are different solutions from different parts of the world to deal with solar panel waste. For example, Victoria, Australia has officially banned solar panels from ending up in landfill. Its citizens must take the waste to e-waste drop off points to be recycled.
Moreover, under a new proposed recycling expansion program, Queenslanders will soon be banned from dumping solar panels in landfill in the next decade.
Now, taxing and banning the disposal of solar panels into landfills can be a hit-and-miss. In areas that lack policy or clear management on recycling solar panels, it can backfire.
According to Dr Deng, consumers and businesses can expect to pay between $10 to $20 per panel to recycle, plus any freight or removal fees. Dr Deng said, “If you have a system of 10 panels on your roof, you’re going to pay at least $200 to dispose of them.” This extra cost could be a massive deterrent to recycling and more of a reason to dispose of them in a landfill facility.
On the other hand, initiatives that promotes circular economy such as Australia’s Product Steward Scheme can potentially encourage PV recycling.
Dr Corkish suggested that with initiatives like these, everyone who imports, designs, produces, sells, and uses PV modules has a shared responsibility for reducing the environmental impact. This could incentivize manufacturers to invest in better PV recycling technology.
“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,” Dr Corkish said.
There’s a caveat, however. PV modules have long service life. And because they last up to 30 years, the companies who are currently active in the market were not necessarily the ones manufacturing the older panels on rooftops today.
What happened to recycling?
According to the British government, there are tens of millions of solar panels in the UK. However, there’s still not enough
But the specialist infrastructure to scrap and recycle them is lacking. It’s not just the lack of proper technology, there was just not much waste to process before. That is, until now, when there’s suddenly a boom of solar panel waste.
Today, we can find better recycling technology. But, it’s expensive. Many still prefer crushing or shredding the waste—a far cheaper alternative.
Let’s put it this way: we’re still struggling with recycling plastic waste and dealing its pollution even though plastic has been around for over half of century. Then comes solar panel, which recycling is still very much in its infancy.
Therefore, “end-of-life PV systems will be a future environmental problem unless we address it now,” Dr Corkish said.
Will solar panels be unreliable in the future?
Despite the challenges now, I personally think that we shouldn’t be pessimistic about the future. For now, there are still efforts to further develop the recycling technology so that we can mitigate this waste problem in the future. Since humans have been developing technology at a much faster rate, I believe we’ll get there eventually.
And, it’s not like there’s no efforts at all. According to Dr Deng, some countries in Europe who are far ahead in terms of addressing the problem. “Countries in Europe have built the prototypes for separation technologies and have several pilot lines to test the feasibility. But most importantly, they have the motivation to do it,” Dr Deng said.
Nonetheless, I do agree with Dr Deng’s take on the scale of the potential waste problem. While not perfect, we do need to start recycling with the technology we have as of current.
“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.”