Australian firm spearheading solar panel recovery

Solar panels being installed on a roof (rooftop solar)
Image: Shutterstock

With Australia having the highest global uptake rate of solar energy generation, Australian startup Solar Recovery Corporation is determined to position the country’s solar sector as a world leader in the circular economy. 

Solar Recovery Corporation is focused on diverting end-of-life solar panels from landfill to recover valuable materials from them for remanufacture and repurposing in other manufacturing processes.

According to Rob Gell of Solar Recovery Corporation, adoption of solar power in Australia is strong with around 30 per cent of homes with rooftop solar panel systems.

Related article: Australian-first solar panel recycling program launched

“As of January this year, more than three million rooftop solar systems have been installed on roofs across Australia,” Gell said.

“Not only is this helping households to save money on electricity, it is also helping our nation to reduce its carbon footprint. Because sunshine is a free input the process of converting sunlight into electricity using photovoltaic solar panels generates zero greenhouse gas emissions.

“Further, excess electricity generation can be directed back into the grid or it can be stored in a battery system. As a result, solar panel-generated energy provides an excellent solution for Australia to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.

“Like all manufactured goods, solar panels provide us with a particular problem. Energy is required to manufacture them and the metals and materials used in their manufacture can be a problem if they’re not managed properly at end-of-life.”

Solar panels contain many harmful and toxic materials including lead and cadmium, just to mention a few. In a landfill these can leach into the ground contaminating both soil and groundwater. Other materials such as silicon take up to 500 years to break down.

Gell says many solar panels are currently ending up in landfill.

“Some states have banned all e-waste, including solar panels from landfill, but by 2030 millions of solar panels could end up in landfill unless we have universal legislation and programs to manage the valuable materials in them. In our efforts to generate sustainable energy, we have potentially caused another massive headache.

“Solar panels are expected to operate usefully for two or three decades, however, evidence suggests that damage from storms, reduced performance under Australia’s climatic conditions and other issues typically reduce their lifespan requiring them to be replaced sooner than expected.

“Humidity in Australia seems to be a particular problem. The optimum running lifespan of a solar panel is currently less than two or three decades, 10 to 15 years is typical although newer versions may have longer lifespans.

“This means that the number of solar panels nearing their end-of-life status is about to significantly rise resulting in a serious e-waste problem for our country and the planet.

“But we can’t wait to find out. We need to adopt national legislation to ensure that all installed panels are accounted for in a national register and their end-of-life is managed from day one. Product stewardship schemes and ultimately Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation is essential to maximise our opportunity to reuse valuable materials stocks.

“The computerised mechanical recovery processing separates and prepares the materials instantly ready to be used in other manufacturing streams. The recovered glass, plastic, silicon, copper and aluminium are all valuable resources. Consequently, we can also significantly reduce the amount of materials needing to be mined which will save many industries billions of dollars.”

Solar Recovery Corporation is determined to address the issues and embrace this opportunity, and in the process, establish Australia as a world leading circular economy for the recovery and reuse of solar panel materials.

“We have partnered with European company, La Mia Energia (LME), which designs, develops and manufactures clean technology to process end-of-life solar PV panels to world-leading European standards,” Gell added.

“We are now bringing this technology to Australia. We’re establishing processing centres across Australia and we intend to build a significant circular economy in the sector.

Related article: Government pledges $45m towards “ultra low cost” solar

“We’re investigating the potential to become a recovery centre for Asia and New Zealand as well.  

“Not only are we spearheading a new industry for Australia and reducing our impact on the environment by making green energy greener, we are also creating jobs, contributing to the renewable energy economy and establishing Australia as the powerhouse for the solar panel circular economy in the Asia Pacific region.”

Solar Recovery Corporation is accepting end-of-life solar panels now in Townsville and Biloela, Queensland. The first processing centre with the European cutting-edge extraction technology is located in Central Queensland and will commence processing by end of August this year. Further sites are earmarked for regional locations Australia-wide.

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