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Dealing with solar panels at the end of their useful life

Dealing with solar panels at the end of their useful life

UNSW Sydney solar experts say we need bespoke technology designed to recycle important elements inside solar panels.

Dealing with redundant solar panels, or photovoltaic (PV) modules, is looming to be a major waste issue for Australia in the next decade.

In Australia, solar power is one of the country’s leading renewable energy sources with rooftop solar PV installed in more than 3.3 million homes. Sadly, approximately 90 per cent of these systems might ultimately end up in landfill once they need to be replaced.

A 2016 report by the International Energy Agency estimates Australia will generate 145,000 tonnes of waste from PV panels by 2030.

UNSW solar expert, Dr Richard Corkish from the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics, based at UNSW Sydney’s School of Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy Engineering, says the sustainability principles of ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ should be applied to the end-of-life management of all PV modules.

“We’ve seen a huge uptake in both small-scale and large-scale PV deployment in the last decade as the world moves towards renewable energy sources,” he says.

“The industry standard for most solar panels’ lifespan is 25 to 30 years which means solar systems installed more than 15 years ago will soon be approaching their end-of-life.

“Additionally, in the last decade, we’re seeing a growing trend of replacing PV modules even though they are in perfect working condition. A lot of people installed small expensive systems some years ago but rather than adding on to them, they’ve been convinced to replace them altogether.

“From a manufacturing point of view, the photovoltaics research community is trying to lengthen the life of the modules by making them more resilient to the environment, particularly moisture and oxygen.

“The goal is to extend the life, so they last up to 50 years which means we won’t need to make nearly as many in the future. If we suddenly need to ramp manufacturing, we’ll find there are some materials, including silver and aluminium, that will be at risk of being in low supply.”

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