CDU researcher highlights Outback solar panel waste threat

A Charles Darwin University (CDU) researcher has warned that urgent action is needed to minimise the environmental threat posed by thousands of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels that will be decommissioned in coming years.

CDU Northern Institute Research Fellow Deepika Mathur’s End-of-Life Management of Solar PV Panels project is the first attempt to address the waste management issue in remote Australia, where vast distances and the absence of economies of scale create added complexity.

“There’s a perception that everything made can be recycled, but it’s just not that easy. Solar panels were not made to be unmade,” Mathur said.

“As the oldest panels are already reaching their end-of-life, there is a critical need to start planning for the dismantling, removal, collection and recycling phases of management.”

Mathur made the comments at the Solar Waste Project Knowledge Sharing Seminar in Alice Springs, which heard that the capacity to offset some of the economic costs of recycling the NT’s solar PV waste appears limited, with economies of scale difficult to achieve until at least the mid-2040s.

“One of our major concerns is that solar panels are being removed prematurely, which may bring forward the waste burden in the NT to 2025, rather than 2040,” Mathur said.

“Consumers are changing their PV panels after 10 to 12 years rather than their predicted end-of-working life of 20 to 25 years.”

According to Mathur, PV panels have become a consumer item, much like mobile phones.

“Working panels are being replaced as technological advances increase efficiency and reduce costs of new panels,” she said.

In the project’s final report, Mathur said a collaborative approach was necessary to manage the issue, with responsibility shared among governments, industry and consumers.

She added that a readily accessible fit-for-purpose database is needed for capturing installations and removals.

“There is a clear disconnect between the current push to encourage renewables and the absence of any clear policy regarding the management of solar PV waste,” she said.

The report’s data, along with previous research, indicates that in the NT there are multiple solar PV waste flows and stakeholders involved in the sector.

“Rather than consider solar waste management issues through the lens of a straightforward supply chain, it should be conceived of as an interconnected system,” the report reads.

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