Federal Environment Minister puts the solar industry on notice for looming “landfill nightmare”

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley announced on 16 June 2021 that she is “putting the solar panel industry on notice with clear timelines for action”. While Australia’s uptake of millions of solar panels across the country makes us a world leader in clean solar energy, the Environment Minister’s speech indicated that the spotlight on the solar industry will be on sustainable recycling solutions for PV panels and that an industry-wide approach on collection and recycling will be needed to avoid a “landfill nightmare” 

PV panels used for solar energy are the “photovoltaics” cell technology that allows the direct conversion of light into electric power using semiconducting materials such as silicon. Solar panels use this PV cell technology to supply clean energy for homes and industrial purposes, and with the technology more readily available, the cost of solar panels now varies. Unfortunately, this also means that many inferior products are now entering the market. 

A byproduct of this growing clean energy industry appears to be the short lifespan of certain solar panels and therefore the need to dispose of exhausted solar panels. This is especially true for inferior solar panels that are flooding the solar market in Australia at a very low price point. 

Good quality solar panels should have a life span of over 25 years, but with the entrance of inferior products, we are seeing the disposal of solar panels that haven’t lasted more than a few years. One further problem we are running into in Australia is the lack of easy access to recycling centres that can properly recycle solar panels. 

Solar panels are indeed recyclable and nearly all parts can be reused or recycled if they are sent to a proper recycling centre, as panels are mainly made up of silicon and glass, with only a small amount of metal to be disposed of. Unfortunately, Australia currently only has two dedicated recycling centres for solar panels, and the cost falls on the installer or the homeowner to either send panels to the centre or have them picked up.

It is for these reasons that the Environment Minister has taken aim at the solar industry in her latest speech.  

“I am announcing today that I am putting the solar panel industry on notice with clear timelines for action. 

The uptake of millions of solar panels across the country from rooftops to solar farms has been vital from an emissions perspective but the explosion of retailers and importers in the area, and the lack of an industry-wide approach to collection and recycling, means that it also looms as a landfill nightmare.

We can’t fix one environmental issue by creating another.” 

This targeting from the Federal Government is perhaps what is needed to improve the innovation within the clean energy industry to ensure that manufacturers continue to aim for high-quality solar panels.

And with various Federal and State grants in place to encourage recycling solutions, Australians may begin to see easier access to more recycling centres to match the growing demand and uptake of solar energy. The NSW state government for example has launched a $10 million grant scheme to run trial projects that increase the collection, reuse, and recycling of solar panel and battery storage systems. 

Grants and schemes like this will assist the industry in making the transition to clean energy more available and attractive to consumers, who are increasingly looking for sustainable solutions which include making recycling easier to achieve. But many consumers may not be aware of recycling solutions available to them when it comes to disposing of solar panels. More effort could be directed to educating consumers and homeowners of solutions for solar panels to avoid ending up in landfill.  

The more consumers and homeowners demand sustainable recycling solutions for end of life panel products, the more manufacturers will have no choice but to incorporate sustainable end of life solutions in their product offerings. Coupled with government pressure, it will be interesting to see the innovations take place in the clean energy market over the next few years.  

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