solar panels desert

Disposal of 80 million solar panels creates headache for recyclers

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Australia is facing a quandary over how to dispose of 80 million solar panels expected to reach end-of-life status by 2035.

The solar panels will generate around 100,000 tonnes of waste at the end of their life, according to a study led by the University of South Australia. Most solar panels are expected to last around 25 to 30 years before their energy-generation capacity declines significantly.

In a new paper, the researchers called for incentives for producers to design solar panels that can be more easily recycled if they are damaged or out of warranty.

“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,” said professor Peter Majewski.

“There are some simple recycling steps that can be taken to reduce the waste volume, including removing the panels’ frames, glass covers and solar connectors before they are disposed of.

“Landfill bans are already in place in Victoria, following the lead of some European countries, encouraging existing installers to start thinking about recyclable materials when making the panels.”

He added that while landfill bans are a powerful tool, they require legislation that ensures waste is not diverted to other locations with less stringent regulations.

Serial numbers that can track a history of solar panels could also monitor their recycling use and ensure they are disposed of in an environmentally friendly way.

The team proposed similar legislation used for electric cars in some European nations that ensure manufacturers are using materials that allow 85 per cent of the car to be recycled at the end of their life.

Weatherproof polymers used in solar panels pose environmental risks, releasing harmful hydro-fluorite gas when incinerated. Exposure to the gas can also irritate and burn the eyes, causing headaches, nausea and, in the worst cases, pulmonary edema, sometimes leaving permanent damage.

Another primary material used in solar cells is silicon, the second most-abundant material on Earth after oxygen and the most common conductor used in computer chips.

“The demand for silicon is huge, so it’s important it is recycled to reduce its environmental footprint,” Majewski said.

“About three billion solar panels are installed worldwide, containing about 1.8 million tons of high-grade silicon, the current value of which is $7.2bn. Considering this, recycling of solar PV panels has the potential to be commercially viable.”

Majewski also proposed creating a second-hand economy based around reusing solar panels that are still functioning with guarantees that provide a minimum capacity in watts.

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