Renewable energy | The Dark Side of Solar Panel recycling

More than 2.5 million households now enjoy the benefits of rooftop solar across Australia. Nearly 15% of the country’s households have already installed solar panels with an average system size of 4.5 kW, and the percentage is rising

This is great news for anyone who acknowledges the need to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy for the sake of our planet’s future. Unfortunately there’s a catch: the replacement rate of solar panels is faster than expected and given the current very high recycling costs, there’s a real danger that all used panels will go straight to landfill (along with equally hard-to-recycle wind turbines). Regulators and industry players need to start improving the economics and scale of recycling capabilities before the avalanche of solar panels hits, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review.

Panels, Panels Everywhere

Economic incentives are rapidly aligning to encourage customers to trade their existing panels for newer, cheaper, more efficient models. The sheer volume of discarded panels will soon pose a risk of existentially damaging proportions. Solar panel  predictions are premised upon customers keeping their panels in place for the entirety of their 30-year lifecycle. They do not account for the possibility of widespread early replacement.

If the cost of trading up is low enough, and the efficiency and compensation rate are high enough, consumers will make the switch, regardless of whether their existing panels have lived out a full 30 years. When considering commercial and industrial panels added to the picture, the scale of replacements could be even greater.

The High Cost of Solar Trash

The industry’s current circular capacity is woefully unprepared for the deluge of waste that is likely to come. The financial incentive to invest in recycling has never been very strong in solar. While panels contain small amounts of valuable materials such as silver, they are mostly made of glass, an extremely low-value material. The long lifespan of solar panels also serves to disincentivise innovation in this area.

As a result, solar’s production boom has left its recycling infrastructure in the dust. With the current capacity, it costs an estimated 20 to 30 times more to recycle one panel, than send it to landfill. 

Panels are delicate, bulky pieces of equipment usually installed on rooftops. Specialised labor is required to detach and remove them, lest they shatter to smithereens before they make it onto the truck. The economics of solar — so bright-seeming from the vantage point of 2021 — would darken quickly as the industry sinks under the weight of its own trash.

It’s Not Just Solar

The same problem is looming for other renewable-energy technologies. For example, barring a major increase in processing capability, experts expect that hundreds of thousands of tonnes worth of gargantuan wind turbine blades will end up in landfills over the next 20 years. According to prevailing estimates, only five percent of electric-vehicle batteries are currently recycled – a lag that automakers are racing to rectify as sales figures for electric cars continue to rise as much as 40% year-on-year. 

None of this should raise serious doubts about the future or necessity of renewables. The science is indisputable: Continuing to rely on fossil fuels to the extent we currently do will bequeath a damaged if not dying planet to future generations. Of all sectors, sustainable technology can least afford to be short-sighted about the waste it creates. A strategy for entering the circular economy is absolutely essential — and the sooner, the better.

Wanless Waste Management is committed to undertaking business in a manner that is environmentally responsible, having due regard for standards and expectations of the community and protecting the environments in which we operate. As a business we strive to continually improve our environmental performance and strategically assist our customers to improve theirs.

Wanless recognises that strong environmental performance is critical to our businesses success. Our holistic approach means we consider all wastes as a resource, and strive through our collections and Resource Recovery Alliance to incorporate recovery, recycling and re-use in everything we do. Contact us to find out how.