Perfectly good solar panels are being dumped, and how New South Wales is putting an end to it

The New South Wales government has backed a trial that will rescue rooftop solar panels destined for landfill to keep generating energy in solar gardens.

solar panels australia
Solar power 'farm' in New Norcia, Western Australia. The farm has 840 photovoltaic panels and can generate 470MWh of electricity annually, equal to the electricity needed to power 134 typical households. Image: European Space Agency, CC BY-SA 2.0

Rooftop solar arrays often fall victim to renovations or building demolitions that end the generating lifespan of these renewable energy assets prematurely. With no second hand market for these solar panels, they are sent straight to landfill, often well before they’ve reached their 30-year functional lifespan.

Sustainable business management consultancy BlueTribe has snagged more than $215,000 from the NSW government to pilot a secondary marketplace concept, with a demonstration system planned for Dubbo.

The pilot will give decommissioned panels a second life by collecting used panels, assessing their generation ability, and then deploying the functioning panels in community solar gardens. Not unlike a community garden, solar gardens allow people to purchase a solar garden “plot” from a centralised solar system to access renewable energy.

Solar panels that aren’t fit for a second life are recycled at a waste and recycling centre and their valuable components harvested for reuse.

Now that the concept has been ironed out, the plan is to build a demonstration system in Dubbo in NSW.

BlueTribe chief executive James McGregor was pleased to discover that contrary to what was popularly understood, there were no regulations that prohibited the recovery of old solar panels. There have been some technical issues to work through, however, such as panels no longer being in warranty.

He said it was also a challenge to get panels made by various manufacturers to work together as a cohesive system, although the team was able to source existing technologies that are able to integrate the assorted panels.

Mr McGregor said that the project began when School Infrastructure NSW upgraded a school roof and found the most cost effective option was to replace the existing system with a brand new set even though the existing panels were only around eight years old. They also identified around 30,000 panels that might also be impacted by similar upgrade projects and wanted to see a solution developed.

Mr McGregor says this is all too common. With the majority of solar panels generating power for 30 years and 99.97 per cent of Australia’s PV capacity installed since 2010, close to all PV systems ending up in landfill still have some life left in them.

“Most of the time we have these panels that are still perfectly good ending up in the tip as there’s nowhere else for them to go.”

While the volumes of renewable waste are still relatively modest, the NSW government wants to set the state up to manage this fast-growing waste stream, which is expected to balloon to 3000 - 10,000 tonnes each year by 2025 and 40,000 – 71,000 tonnes each year by 2035.

“Now is the time to invest in developing systems for collecting, recycling and re-using so we can keep these valuable resources out of the tip and drive a productive circular economy,” Energy Minister Matt Kean said.

The state has also awarded solar provider The Solar Professionals a $946,000 grant to develop technology that dismantles retired solar panels into uncontaminated components and test the use of solar panel glass in greenhouses.

More grants will be awarded through the Circular Solar program, which is part of the government’s commitment to set up a $10 million fund to reduce landfilling of solar panels and battery systems.

This story was published with permission from The Fifth Estate.

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