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Rising power costs worsening solar panel e

May 01, 2023

Researchers say rising power costs are pushing some home owners to replace their solar panels prematurely, increasing the need for bespoke recycling facilities to avoid them going to waste.

Solar power is one of Australia's most popular renewable energy sources, with more than 3.3 million homes having rooftop solar panels.

But a report by the International Energy Agency predicts solar panels will make up 145,000 tonnes of waste by 2030.

University of NSW researcher Rong Deng said more people were replacing solar panels earlier than necessary amid rising electricity costs.

"Most panels come with a manufacturer warranty of 25 to 30 years so when we first installed them we think the waste problem is too far away," she said.

"But the thing is, with the current higher electricity price, more people are considering replacing the old, smaller system to a cheaper and bigger system.

"And that actually generates the first wave of the waste because we didn't really expect it until 2030."

Latrobe Valley Sustainability Group president Dan Caffrey lives in the backyard of Victoria's coal-fired power station hub in Traralgon, and was one of the first in the state to install solar panels at his home in 2009.

Mr Caffrey was concerned about climate change and wanted to do something to reduce his reliance on fossil fuels being burnt in his region.

He said he had kept his original solar panels, which were still working order, and chose to add additional panels to prevent waste.

"I didn't like the idea of waste ... or of them ending their working lives when possibly they still had another 30 years," Mr Caffrey said.

"I only needed nine new panels to get three times the amount of electricity as my original six panels."

But Mr Caffrey said people needed to do their research to ensure they were purchasing good quality products.

"If you get quality [panels] you are able to keep that efficiency up," he said.

"If people buy the cheap, crappy ones that are not properly authenticated, their efficiencies and longevity has not been proven, then you're in trouble."

Dr Deng said standards or regulations needed to be in place to ensure only high-quality solar panels were able to be installed, and to make companies responsible for the afterlife of panels.

Rocketing power prices have reignited interest in rooftop solar, but are low feed-in tariffs discouraging people from taking the plunge?

"With that standard ... all of the related parties will be financially liable for the end of life," she said.

"So when the products come to the Australian market, all of the liable parties need to pay a little bit up-front cost to manage the end of life."

Up to 95 per cent of the materials within solar panels can be recycled, extracting valuable materials including silicon, aluminium, and silver.

Solar panels have been banned from landfill in Victoria since July 2019, with Queensland also considering similar laws through a proposed recycling expansion program.

In Victoria, solar panels must be taken to e-waste drop-off points to be recycled, along with other products that have a plug, battery or cord.

But Dr Deng said the current recycling process was flawed as rare metals were not able to be extracted efficiently.

"We don't really have the infrastructure here in Australia. We have technical solutions, we have feasible models in other countries, we just need some time to adopt those in Australia," she said.

In September last year, the then minister for solar homes Lily D'Ambrosio announced $10 million towards Victoria's Solar Waste Challenge, which aimed to invest in solar panel waste solutions.

Some solar panel recycling facilities are set to open this year with ElecSome due to begin operations next month in Kilmany in eastern Victoria.

The company is 'upcycling' solar panels, transforming them into new products for use in the construction and manufacturing industry.

ElecSome managing director Neeraj Das said the plant could process 5-tonnes of waste per hour.

"The plant we are building, at the full scale, [could] manage even the higher volume of the solar waste if it comes our way," he said.

"Although we are expecting that we won't see the larger volume until 2024-25."

Energy company AGL is also considering transforming the site of its Latrobe Valley coal-fired power station, Loy Yang A, into a renewable energy hub to recycle solar panels.

It is preparing a feasibility study over two years, in collaboration with Solar Recovery Corporation, looking into establishing a solar photovoltaic panel materials recovery facility after the station closes in 2035.

The site site would re-manufacture end-of-life solar panels and aims to provide training and employment opportunities for the local community as it transitions into the renewable energy industry.

AGL Energy Hubs general manager Travis Hughes said reusing materials and metals from solar panels was a significant opportunity for Australia.

"Australia has one of the highest deployments of solar across residential homes," he said.

"Ostensibly [the solar panels] would be from residential homes and then they'd be looking to resupply those materials to other solar panel manufacturers."

The energy hub would also include a grid-scale battery, due to the site's existing electrical connection.

AGL plans on installing grid-scale batteries across the country, including the Torrens Island Power Station.

"The battery, we'll be seeking to bring that online before the closure of the power station," Mr Hughes said.