|Domestic solar panels|
Researchers predict Australia will accumulate 1 million tons of solar panel waste by 2047, the same weight as 19 Sydney Harbor Bridge.
But this number is likely to be higher, as we’ve found that people often choose to remove panels after only 10-12 years of use. This is long before their estimated end-of-life age 30 years (is potentially older).
Unfortunately, recycling is only a small part of the solution. So why is this happening and what can we do about it?
Australia’s shocking “material footprint”
Australians have heard the call to increase renewable energy. You installed capacity of panels across Australia has increased dramatically from 25.3 megawatts in 2007 to 77,078 megawatts in 2017. Similarly, the capacity of the rooftop solar market nearly doubled between 2014 and 2018.
Australia is committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of using fewer resources. And this requires us to use products (such as solar panels) efficiently, with less waste. Australia’s goal Australia 2020 progress update shows that our per capita material footprint is increasing. In fact, it is one of the highest in the world, at 70% above the OECD average.
To help reduce our growing material footprint and keep e-waste out of landfills, we need to ensure that solar panels are sustainable in life as well as in death.
It is assumed that the main reason people remove solar panels is due to technical failures, such as when they reached their maturity after 30 years, or breakages due to extreme weather conditions or during transportation. But failing to generate electricity does not explain why many are thrown away prematurely.
Then, we interviewed solar panel installers, recycling organizations, advocacy groups, and local government waste managers across the Northern Territory. And our resulting qualitative research found social and economic incentives for the removal of solar panels.
Outside the new, inside the new
We found an entire panel system is removed when only a few panels are damaged, as the new panels must have similar electrical properties to the old ones.
If the panels are still under warranty, the manufacturer often pays to replace the entire set, even when only a few are defective. This means that the functioning panels are removed along with the defective panels, prematurely turning into waste.
Solar panels have also become a commodity. Many of us download old phones and cars when the latest technology becomes available and the solar panels receive the same treatment. Having recouped their investment in solar panels through reduced electricity bills, some people are eager to get newer, more efficient models with a new warranty.
Our research also suggests the government incentives aimed at deploying more solar panels have led consumers to replace the entire solar array. This is because the previous discounts did not cover the replacement of one or a few panels.
Finally, the life of solar inverters is usually 10-12 years, much shorter than the 30-year lifespan of the panels themselves. Some people use this as an opportunity to install a new set of solar panels when they change their inverters.
So why can’t we just recycle them?
There is currently little research on what we can do with panels when they are removed for reasons other than technical failure.
Researchers often propose recycling as a preferred option for removed panels. But sending the growing number of working panels to recycling plants is a huge waste of resources and increases the burden of recycling the panels, which is still in its place. nascent stages.
Waste management is the responsibility of states and territories and they align their waste strategies with the federal government National waste policy.
But there is still no national directive on the disposal of solar panels, specifically. This means that there is a patchwork of policies in states and territories for managing this waste.
Victoria, for example, it has identified solar panels as the fastest growing waste stream in the state’s overall e-waste stream, and the state government has banned them from landfills.
But such measures would not work for the Northern Territory given the lack of processing facilities and the distance from recycling centers in South Australia, which are at least 1,500 kilometers away. With wide open land, they are more likely to end up illegally dumped.
What do we do?
Australia needs clear national guidelines on the collection, transportation, storage and disposal of solar panels. The lack of a clear policy prevents state, territorial and local governments from effectively managing this waste.
By proposing recycling as the preferred option to manage this waste, we risk excluding other important options in the waste management hierarchy, such as reducing waste primarily by making solar panels that last, extending their life.
The federal government also touted “product management”As a possible solution. This is where those involved in the production, sale, use and disposal of products share the responsibility to reduce their environmental impact.
But this model would not effectively serve regional and remote areas, as the collection and transportation of goods from remote locations has a very high financial and environmental cost.
It is worth noting that some panels undergo a kind of “second life”. There is a unique demand for second-hand panels from people who cannot afford new systems, those looking to live off the grid, small organizations keen to cut their energy bills, and owners of mobile homes and caravans.
But with a number of huge solar parks proposed through north of Australia, it is more important than ever to explore new strategies for managing removed solar panels, with clear policies and creative solutions.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Robin Gregory of Regional Development Australia, Northern Territory to this article.