Fashionable waste: why our North is dumping working solar panels

Solar energy is usually considered a positive – a plus in the fight against climate change, but when solar panels and energy systems become waste, a considerable burden is placed on the environment.

So say the authors of several recent reviews of Australia’s efforts to develop a circular solar economy in Northern Australia, the results of which are a resounding “can do better”.

While options to manage end-of-life solar systems and their components are carefully weighed for urban areas, there is little attention being paid to regional ones.

The remote Northern Territory has witnessed massive investment in the supply side of solar and construction of some of the world’s biggest solar farms, but little attention is paid to the waste side.

The poor NT report cards have prompted a call for governments to intervene by developing new regulatory structures to allay widespread uncertainty about waste in the solar panel industry.

For a 2021 empirical study led by Dr Deepika Mathur, a senior research fellow at Charles Darwin University’s Northern Institute, researchers interviewed NT installers of solar panels, along with local recycling groups, solar advocates, and council waste managers, all key stakeholders in what has become a complex but increasingly confounded sector.

Recently, a more strategic 2023 study asked what needed to be done to address the issues raised in the earlier research.

The combined review arrives as Australia applauds its most recent published figures for solar power generation of 31% growth for the 2020/21 year.

Still, in the Northern Territory the research found many solar panels being removed from rooftops well before their time.

“It was suggested by the installers and recyclers that [solar systems] are becoming consumer items,” said Mathur in a recent ANU workshop, “and just like your phone, they get prematurely removed and replaced, even though the original panels are still performing, and sometimes within the warranty period.

“People are looking to expand, upgrade to larger systems and have the latest technology, and they will of course be far cheaper.”

There is a great deal of value in a solar panel at the end of its life.

While the trend was lowering the cost of trading up, it was also encouraging people to change their photovoltaic panels before they needed to, she said.

“We were asking the questions: Where and why are panels removed? Where do they go?”

The answers were complex, and included inclement weather (such as hail), rust, faulty manufacture, vandalism and, commonly, failure of the inverter, which is the bit of equipment that converts a direct current output from a photovoltaic solar panel to alternating current to feed the electrical grid.

Mather said manufacturers of rooftop solar systems guaranteed the full system, but older models didn’t accept newer parts, and the inverter life was only 10 years compared with the panel’s 30.

Both situations were driving consumers to replace their entire system with a newer one if something goes wrong or as a fashionable update. In doing so, customers get “government rebates, fresh warranty, newest, cheapest, and probably the largest system”, Mather said.

The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.

Please login to favourite this article.