It’s one of the few drawbacks of solar power – solar panels have a life of approximately 10 to 30 years after which they usually end up in landfill.
It is estimated about 100,000 tones of the product could end up in dumps around Australia over the next decade – and a million tonnes during the 2040s – amid the ongoing shift to renewable energy.
Some governments in Australia have been seeking to address the problem, with Victoria in 2019 banning the dumping of solar panels into landfill.
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And rightly so, because it’s a “big issue”, according to waste management expert Pablo Ribeiro Dias.
“Landfilling panels has two major implications,” Ribeiro Dias, a PhD in engineering, told 7NEWS.com.au.
“The first one is that panels are made to last a long time and be safe for the environment while in operation. But once you landfill the panels and break them, you start creating the possibility of releasing toxic components contained therein.
“Most panels use a lead-tin solder and thus lead can end up contaminating the environment if not properly recycled or contained.
“The second implication is that a solar panel has a lot of valuable materials that could go back to the economy if panels are properly recycled – examples are copper, aluminum and silver.
“Of course this is not the case if they are landfilled.”
The second problem is where the private sector is stepping in.
One Australia company believes it not only has the solution, but can profit from it.
The relatively new Solar Recovery Corporation (SRC) is shipping a $3.2 million piece of equipment from Europe designed to extract materials from solar panels for recycling.
“We can’t afford to lose those valuable materials,” SRC chief executive Rob Gell said.
“Just the silicon, we can recover a little more than 1kg from each solar panel.
“It’s, frankly, good economics and not something that Australia’s been at the cutting edge of.”
The equipment developed by Italian company La Mia Energia has been in operation for about 10 years.
SRC is seeking to bring the technology to Australia for the first time.
The company hopes it’ll be up and running in August and has targeted central Queensland to open up a plant.
Gell believes the machine will be able to process about 180,000 panels a year – a number that will have the company on target to import more of the devices.
“That’s going to be a bit of a chicken and egg process – we’ll get the first one up and running and it’ll generate revenue from the materials we’ll recover, which means we’ll be able to expand the business and provide the capability elsewhere,” he said.
“This’ll be a profitable business and we’re very comfortable with that. We’ll make our profit from the resale of materials that we collect.
“We’re not doing this as a public service. We intend to make a profit.”
He believes other states should follow Victoria’s lead in banning the landfilling of panels.
Ribeiro Dias has also seen the potential in the solar panel recycling business, setting up the company SOLARCYCLE which will initially target the United States market.
However he has welcomed the market competition given the problem being addressed.
“All these movements that the industry is making to create the recycling infrastructure are good steps,” he said.
“We need these players to start operating to overcome the learning curves that come with any new market/technology so that they are ready to undertake the tsunami of panels that are starting to show up.
“It is good to remember that the solar industry has been increasing exponentially, which translates into an exponential growth of waste, too.”