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Should we be worried about solar waste?

  • 01 Sep 2020

Are you worried about how your solar PV system is going to affect the planet after it’s useful life ends? Many are wondering what will happen to these so-called ‘green’ power systems once it’s time to throw them out. Do they cease being environmentally friendly and cause our landfill systems to overflow? Is there a better way to dispose of solar components?

Australia currently (Sept 2020) has 2.46 million solar PV installations with a combined capacity of over 18.5 gigawatts. Queensland is leading the country with 38.6% of dwellings in the sunshine state being fitted with a solar system. This statistic is fantastic now but also means we’ll be the biggest producer of solar waste eventually too. In 10 to 15 years time there is expected to be around 1.5 million tonnes of solar panels heading for either recycling or landfill.

We know that while we’re using the solar panels they are helping to reduce the use of often polluting, non-renewable fossil fuels, which is a plus for the planet. However, nothing lasts forever, so what happens once all the panels we’ve hastily installed on our roofs in an effort to do the right thing for the environment are ready for the trash?

Initially, when the solar energy industry was still developing, there were predictions that while we were trying to reduce the environmental and greenhouse gas problems by using solar power we could, in fact, be making matters worse.

As solar has become more and more popular around the world manufacturing processes have streamlined making the product more affordable and increasing production. Thankfully this increase has been closely followed by developments in how to sustainably dispose of the components of these systems, a large percentage of which, are solar panels.

Solar panel waste predicted to not be in issue.

The good news is that solar panels are currently not predicted to be a waste issue in the future.

On average solar panels last around 20 to 30 years, which is pretty good for any fixture let alone one that spends its whole time in the harsh Australian weather. This long life means most solar panels installed in the last 10 years still have a lot of life left in them. However, panels get thrown out for other reasons too. Add to the panels that eventually wear out those that have been damaged during hail or storms, those which can’t be used anymore due to faults such as hot spots or micro cracks, as well as panels damaged during installation or transport. The result of all this is over the next 30 years there will be a significant amount of solar panels going to waste. 

Luckily, recycling is a viable option.

Solar panels

Recycling solar panels

Solar panels are mostly comprised of glass and an aluminium frame, with small amounts of plastic, silicon, and conductive metals such as copper, silver and aluminium. Once the aluminium frame is removed the rest is around 90% glass. These two materials have already been proven to be easily recyclable and recycling systems to reuse them are already in place.

In some solar panel recycling systems, thermal decomposition is the process used to salvage the silicon PV panels. This process uses heat to evaporate the thin plastic coating causing the panels to fall apart, leaving behind the glass, silicon, and other conductive metals.

Using these and the systems that are being developed by the industry, it is realistic to expect that solar panels can be effectively recycled at the end of their useful life. Effectively reducing the pressure on the country’s landfill systems and increasing the overall environmentally friendly nature of solar PV systems.

What if solar recycling systems are not available?

If for some reason, the recycling initiative fails to become a viable option or in areas where these systems are not implementable, all is not lost. A recent report by the International Energy Agency found that solar panel waste which was disposed of in landfill posed no significant hazard to human health.

Thinking of investing in solar power? Fallon Solutions offer specialist advice and customised solar power systems designed specifically to cater for your exact electricity needs.

Resources - http://apvi.org.au/international-study-solar-pv-module-disposal-poses-no-health-risk/

https://renew.org.au/renew-magazine/sustainable-tech/recycling-solar/

https://reneweconomy.com.au/solar-pv-panel-waste-will-not-become-a-significant-problem-98181/

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