Report: Better solar recycling needed to deal with PV waste

Waste facility with piles of old solar panels stacked neatly in rows (solar recycling)
Image supplied

A new report on solar panel recycling has recommended a raft of measures including the establishment of large waste facilities in five big Australian cities by 2027.

The Scoping study: Solar Panel End-of-Life Management in Australia report from the Australian Centre of Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP) which is led by UNSW Sydney, highlights projected cumulative volume of decommissioned panels to reach 1 million tonnes by 2035.

Related article: New solar recycling process helps recover valuable silver

On an annual basis, that could be as much as 100,000 tonnes of photovoltaic (PV) waste being generated every year by the end of the decade.

The study, commissioned by Neoen Australia, the country’s largest renewable energy company, reveals the problem is more pressing than previously thought, and contradicts earlier findings that significant volumes of waste would not appear until at least after 2030.

Initially, the majority of waste solar panels are expected to concentrate in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide—before PV waste starts growing faster in regional and remote areas from 2030 onwards.

The first wave of increased waste is expected to come from decommissioned rooftop solar panels and the report says near-term action is needed to boost the levels of recycling and prevent this waste going into landfill.

The authors have called for sites in the five major cities to deal with 5,000 to 10,000 tonnes of waste panels per year, with that volume needing to double at each facility in the next six years.

ACAP executive director Professor Renate Egan said, “The total material value from end-of-life solar panels is projected to surpass $1 billion by 2035.

“As a result, establishing domestic PV waste management facilities in Australia presents an opportunity for resource recovery. Recycling offers a gateway to reducing landfill, enhancing circular economy initiative, and job creation.

“This report was developed to provide a detailed analysis of the waste volumes and distributions, needed to prepare for future waste from rooftop and large scale solar.”

Dr Rong Deng, one of the authors of the report, highlights the economic value in building capacity in facilities that are able to properly recycle panels that come to the end of their useful life.

“Solar panels are made of materials like aluminium, glass, silicon, silver, and copper, and they can be recycled. Therefore, panels should be viewed as valuable resources rather than waste. However, more scalable, comprehensive, and cost-effective solutions are needed to deal with large volumes in the coming decade.”

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The cost of recycling solar panels currently ranges from $500 and $1,000 per ton, covering transportation and before accounting for the revenue from sold materials. This estimate assumes that the recycling facilities handle approximately 5,000 tonnes of panels each year.

The major expenses in the recycling process are the capital expenditures required for facility setup and the ongoing labour costs.

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