- A research paper from Australia sheds light on the need for the country to have a strong legislation for solar panel recycling for EOL panels
- Landfill bans work but these are cost effective than alternative methods of disposal but there are chances panels are diverted elsewhere in the absence of a proper legal mandate
- They recommend product stewardship scheme for solar panels or an extended producer responsibility to increase the onus of companies but need to make recycling of solar panels commercially viable
With about 80 million solar panels installed in the country expected to enter landfills 20 years down the line, Australia should consider bringing in an end-of-life (EOL) legislation for PV panels and support an emerging solar recycling industry with financial support to ‘avoid a looming significant waste legacy’, according to a research work by the University of South Australia (UniSA), University of New South Wales (NSW), Solarcycle and Circular PV Alliance.
According to the authors of the paper published in AIMS Energy, Australia could be looking at 100,000 tons of solar panels to be dismantled from 2035. By 2036, it could grow to about 1.5 million tons and more than 2 million tons by 2040. Having a robust legislation for EOL management of these panels is needed now for a circular economy for the materials embedded in these.
UniSA Professor Peter Majewski argues that landfill bans, as are in place in Victoria, are a powerful tool but require a strong legislation that ensures waste is not diverted to other locations and is truly recycled to avoid adverse impact to the environment.
Landfills also offer a cost efficiency that makes it very difficult for alternative disposal methods to compete, he points out.
“Solar panel re-use offers a variety of social and environmental benefits, but consumers will need guarantees that second-hand panels will work properly and provide a minimum capacity in watts,” recommends Majewski. “A levy on the panels may also be needed to help finance an EOL scheme.”
The team also recommends having a product stewardship scheme for solar panels or an extended producer responsibility (EPR). It will ensure the responsibility of stakeholders involved in designing, manufacturing and selling products to make sure products are managed in a way that reduces their impacts on environment and human health.
For instance, weatherproof polymers in solar panels release harmful hydro-fluorite gas when incinerated adversely impacting human health, according to the research. Silicon worth tens of millions of dollars ends up in landfills too in the absence of any strong binding rules. Globally 3 billion solar PV panels are currently installed that use about 1.8 million tons of high-grade silicon worth $7.2 billion. Recycling these panels then has a potential to be commercially successful.
“While recycling appears to be the preferred option for the EOL management of solar PV, it is worth exploring whether an intermediate strong second-hand economy for used solar PV panels also seems to be a viable path towards reducing the waste legacy of solar PV panels, e.g. especially for oil- rich nations with a high fossil fuel share in the energy mix, lower per capita income, and a manufacturing sector which is mainly driven by energy sources based on fossil fuel,” reads the paper.
However, recycling of solar panels has to made commercially viable after factoring in both existing and new panels. End consumers in a rooftop solar market like Australia, can be encouraged to replace or upgrade their solar systems once they have clarity with a legislation that the replaced panels will be disposed off responsibly.
For this to work, authors recommend associated schemes to provide incentives for producers to develop more easily recyclable solar panels that ‘triggers the creation of second-hand markets for the re-use of solar PV panels as demonstrated for other technologies’.
According to a 2022 IEA PVPS report on PV module recycling, several companies are taking the onus of a proper management and recycling of these products, yet these efforts remain concentrated and is done properly in countries with EOL regulations in place. It still remains a high-cost, low-revenue scenario due to low volumes, limited available recycling technologies, logistics challenges, and undeveloped markets for recovered materials.
TaiyangNews is hosting a Solar & Sustainability Virtual Conference on March 30, 2023 with stakeholders from across the solar spectrum to discuss the solar sustainability subject in detail, including a presentation on solar module recycling. Check the agenda and join us by registering for free here.