Environmental cost of solar panels
by Diana Gosper
You've heard the renewables naysayers happily espouse coal and coal seam gas (or nuclear power!) when they speak of rubbish tips around the world filling up with unwanted solar panels (panels generally have a lifespan of 20-25 years, but up to 40 years -with reduced capacity- if they are a quality brand and are used correctly).
Australia, being the country with one of the biggest uptakes of solar, should rightly be concerned about the end life of solar panels, and we should be leading the way when it comes to recycling and repurposing our used panels, which are the major waste incurred when producing a new solar power system.
Studies have shown that Australia is set to have 900,000t of solar panel waste by 2050, by comparison to say Russia, who are estimated to have 150,000t by 2050. Clearly Australia need to lead the way when it comes to responsible recycling and disposal.
Positive news is that solar panels are becoming thinner, meaning less materials are needed, and less energy is required to make them, bringing the environmental cost further down.
Here's the thing; Australia, with our golden plains and wealth for toil- can foreseeably be a leading protagonist when it comes to the generation- and recycling- of solar panels and components.
And you can take heart; The Australian Renewable Energy Agency are funding a $15 million panel recycling project, and that is just the beginning. Sustainability Victoria are starting a solar panel product stewardship, and experts are keen to adopt the practices of other countries like France, who in 2018 developed Europe’s first solar panel recycling plant; with cooperation between industry, governments and recyclers, they developed a program that sees 90-96% of the materials salvaged from a used solar panel get recycled.
Sure, federal state and local governments are going to be facing a big challenge, but the rewards are clearly there in the long run; studies have shown that one solar farm the size of Lismore Shire could power the county for a year.
There should be a legal and financial incentive for businesses (at least, if not households as well) to recycle their panels, it makes good financial and environmental sense to make the most of the material contained within them, and it wouldn't be hard to incentivise larger businesses to change to solar with battery storage and reap the fiscal benefits.
In a 2016 study on solar panel recycling, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) said that in the long term, building dedicated PV panel recycling plants makes sense. It estimates that recovered materials could be worth $450 million by 2032 and exceed $15 billion by 2050, Australia alone is expected to produce $100 million worth by 2032.
One thing is for sure and certain, every shonky solar dealer that gets in and then gets out, rorting the public with substandard panels, are not only potentially pushing the price of renewables up, they are also a part of the waste problem. Quality panels used correctly can last up to 40 years, and the reputable manufacturers and suppliers are the ones who are participating in responsible recycling and/or stewardship programs.
Advocates and protagonists of the solar and renewable energy sector since 1987, Rainbow Power Company get you the best bang for your buck, with the most environmentally friendly products.
Buy from a reputable company who buy the best quality panels and use them to their full life. Buy from Rainbow Power Company and know that you have the best quality system that money can buy.
From a community perspective and as an individual you could look at doing one of a number of things with your unwanted or superseded panels;
- Lobby your pollies and ministers to put a solar panel recycling or buy-back scheme into place for solar panels, and hang onto them until they do. (Currently one company in Australia is recycling solar panels, Adelaide's Reclaim PV).
- Sell them as is. Sites like FB marketplace and Gumtree have a buy and sell section in your area.
- Give them away. Same as above sites have a 'free' section where you can post your items for interested parties to come and collect.
- Find a scrap dealer who will take them for free.
- Pay for them to be disposed of as electronic waste.
- Pay for them to be recycled.
- upcycle them into a table or other useful item and sell at markets or give to friends as cool eco gifts.