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Study finds need for new solar panel waste management facilities


A new report from the Australian Center for Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP) recommends a range of measures to recycle solar panels, including the establishment of disposal facilities in five Australian cities by 2027.


The report, titled "Scoping Study: Solar Panel End-of-Life Management in Australia," found that the projected accumulation of discarded solar panels could reach one million tons by 2035.


ACAP, led by the University of New South Wales (UNSW), found that based on current projections, 100,000 tons of photovoltaic (PV) waste could be generated annually by the end of this decade.


The study, commissioned by Australia's Neoen, found that the problem is more pressing than previously thought, and contradicts previous findings that significant amounts of waste would not occur until at least 2030.


Initially, most solar panel waste is expected to be concentrated in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide, before PV waste begins to grow rapidly in regional and remote areas from 2030.


The first wave of waste growth is expected to come from solar panels on decommissioned rooftops, and the report says action needs to be taken in the short term to increase recycling levels and keep this waste out of landfill.


The report's authors call for the establishment of disposal sites in the five largest cities to process between 5,000 and 10,000 tons of used solar panels per year, with each facility doubling its capacity over the next six years.


It is expected that facilities in these major cities will be able to process more than 70% of Australia's solar panel waste, while other smaller facilities in Dubbo/Wellington, Townsville, Newcastle, Mullumbimbych, Central Highlands and Busselton will provide a full national service.


ACAP Executive Director Renate Egan said, "The total value of end-of-life solar panel material is expected to exceed $1 billion by 2035."


"The establishment of a PV waste management facility in Australia is therefore an opportunity for resource recovery. Recycling provides a way to reduce landfill, enhance circular economy initiatives and create jobs."


"This report has been produced to provide a detailed analysis of waste volumes and distribution, which is necessary to prepare for the future of rooftop and large-scale solar-generated waste," Ms. Egan said.


Rong Deng, one of the report's authors, said there is economic value in building facilities that can properly recycle solar panels at the end of their useful life.


"Solar panels are made of materials such as aluminum, glass, silicon, silver and copper, which can be recycled. Therefore, solar panels should be considered a valuable resource, not waste. However, more scalable, comprehensive and cost-effective solutions are needed to deal with the large number of solar panels over the next decade."


"Due to the previous growth of the residential PV market in Australia, it is expected that more than 80% of solar panels retired by 2030 will come from small-scale distributed PV systems."


"Over the next 12 years we need a clear regulatory framework, affordable collection methods and new technologies that will turn the challenge of end-of-life solar panels into a sustainable business opportunity with positive economic, environmental and social outcomes," Deng said.


The ACAP report recommends that new facilities commit to full material recycling, focusing on solar panel recycling through a complete process designed specifically for this purpose to achieve higher recycling rates and revenues.


Currently, the cost of recycling solar panels ranges from $500 to $1,000 per ton, including transportation costs and revenue from material sales. This estimate assumes that the recycling plant processes approximately 5,000 tons of solar panels per year.


The main expenses of the recycling process are the capital expenditure required to set up the plant and ongoing labor costs.

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