It’s fair to say that Australians officially love solar energy. After all, we now boast the world’s highest solar capacity per person, and we’re installing a new panel every 44 seconds. There are currently around 70 million solar panels on three million rooftops, helping to reduce carbon emissions and power bills all over the country.
But even though quality solar panels will last 25 years or more, they all reach the end of their lives sooner or later. In addition, some are being replaced with newer models, some are damaged in storms and accidents, and others simply no longer work properly. As a result, there’s a growing stockpile of broken and unwanted panels around the country – and the University of SA projects that by 2035, Australians will create around 100,000 tonnes of solar waste every year.
In 2019, the Victorian Government banned solar panels from entering landfills – a move other states are looking to follow – prompting urgent calls to establish national recycling programs. And with the demand for renewable energy set to keep growing in the future, we face a looming environmental crisis if we don’t act quickly.
Thankfully, there’s a growing number of promising recycling programs taking shape around the country – so let’s take a look.
The three main ingredients in a solar panel are silicon, glass, and aluminium, combined with smaller amounts of silver, copper, plastic, and adhesive. While up to 100% of a solar panel can be recycled, much of the difficulty lies in separating, sorting, and processing all of the individual materials in a cost-effective way.
ReclaimPV, Australia’s first solar recycler open to the public, has developed a unique thermal extraction process called “Pyrolysis” that breaks down solar panels using a giant furnace. Once it has separated the various materials, they’re sorted into groups and sent off to manufacturers that use them to make new products.
Another solar recycling company, Lotus Energy, has a different approach. It runs panels through a giant shredder and uses machines to separate and sort the materials (in an oddly satisfying process you can watch here). The Melbourne-based company says it can reclaim 100% of each solar panel and is looking to add solar inverters and railing to its recycling services in the future.
Then there’s a group called the Solar Professionals, which is building a recycling centre in Wagga Wagga due to come online by the end of 2022. The company uses a unique solar “delaminating” process that separates the glass, silicon, and other components to make new products and even provide materials to build greenhouses.
In Germany, a leading research institute has also developed a method of turning old silicon cells into new ones. Hopefully, this breakthrough will lead not only to more panels being recycled, but manufacturers creating new panels out of 100% recycled materials.
If you have old, broken, or unwanted solar panels – or you think you will in the future – here is a list of organisations that can recycle them for you. All of these companies are either in operation now or looking to open their doors in the near future.
In addition, the Circular PV Alliance is currently trialling a program to refurbish old, unwanted solar panels for further use. The alliance aims not only to keep working panels out of landfill, but use clean energy to support developing communities around the world.
As you can see, solar PV recycling in Australia is still relatively new, but the early signs are very promising. And while we should be proud of our progress as a sun-powered country, we also need to think about the big picture and manage our waste responsibly. Thankfully, solar panel recycling is taking shape as a sustainable industry that will create jobs, reduce material costs, and significantly reduce our environmental impact.
In a similar vein, Australia’s lithium battery recycling industry is also gaining rapid momentum. To learn about how we can manage the approaching wave of solar home and electric vehicle batteries, read part two of our article.
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