News that China may restrict exports of solar PV wafers has focused attention on solar PV panel manufacturers, including Australia’s Tindo Solar, which rely on Chinese imported inputs. Here Richard Petterson makes the case for sustainability in solar PV manufacturing and for a bigger role for Australian industry.
The term ‘circular economy’ describes the re-use and re-purpose of resources so they continue to have utility in the economy, rather than being disposed as waste.
It’s a great goal – so why are we not applying the principles of circular economy to the largest transformation of our times, the energy transition?
By 2050, 65 per cent of the electricity in the National Energy Market will be from rooftop solar, producing around 70 gigawatts, according to AEMO.
It should be noted that 70 GW is almost the current total capacity of the National Energy Market (NEM), so we are talking about an enormous investment in solar panels and associated PV equipment.
While this is good for the environment, there are also risks.
One concern is that after twenty years of the renewables transition being driven by lowest-cost equipment, there is a risk of low-quality solar PV panels being overly represented in the market. This is the foreseeable outcome if the effectiveness of the transition is measured only in cents per watt.
The lowest-cost model has driven record installations in Australia, but it’s at odds with the longevity expected of this technology.
In the International Energy Agency special report earlier this year, Solar PV Global Supply Chains, the IEA built its case on the measurement of solar panels lasting 30 years.
The reality is slightly different. Most solar panels have a warranty of just 10 years or less, and there is mounting evidence that when solar panels are taken off Australian roofs, they have only been utilised, on average, around seven years.
This means that the benefits of the embedded carbon used to make the solar panels are not realised to their full potential. In other words, low quality panels inefficiently use the non-renewable natural resources that go into their manufacture.
This doesn’t mean that solar panels can only last seven years – Toyota builds a Corolla to last 30 years, but there are very few 1992 Corollas on the road.
Homeowners do renovations, they want upgrades to systems, and their systems sustain damage from storms and hail and so on, all of which reduce the average life of solar panels.
Solar PV systems are also installed with inverters and batteries, which increase complexity and the chance of breakdowns.
The flooding of the solar market with cheap stock is complicated by the costs of recycling a panel. The components of a solar module – glass, aluminium, silicon wafers and wiring – are fused, sealed and chemically-bonded.
There are thermal, chemical and mechanical operations required to recycle a solar panel, and while the process can recycle glue, glass, plastics and metals back into the industrial supply chains, it is expensive. This is why so many installers simply dump their decommissioned panels.
There are various estimates of the solar panel waste problem, but we know that the thousands of solar panels that are taken off roofs every week could amount to 100,000 tonnes of modules by 2035.
One way to resolve this problem is to make solar PV equipment to last. We argue that achieving this goal means manufacturing in Australia, making high quality panels suited for the Australian environment and conditions.
It’s true that a very large Chinese factory can make solar panels cheaper than my company, Tindo Solar, can make them in Adelaide, but Australia-made panels make sense when measured on a whole-life cost basis.
That is, the whole cost over the 25 years of our panel’s warranty, which includes the cost of repairs and replacements and the cost – over many years – of not generating electricity at the higher rates of superior panels.
We produce at lower volumes than the Chinese super-factories, allowing for more quality-control checks and greater attention to Australia-focused issues of toughness.
For instance, Australian summers can consist of very hot, humid days that are finished with late afternoon storms and plummeting temperatures.
This sudden variability in weather can bring undone the glass lamination that holds the solar cells in place, and once it is broken it lets in water and ruins the panel.
The Australia-made panel is designed and manufactured to avoid this type of weather damage. Our panels are also cyclone-rated for Northern Australia.
An Australia-designed and made solar panel is always going to be the toughest in the market. Indeed, the industry failure-rate for solar panels is one in 1,000, whereas our Tindo panels are 200-time more reliable, independently tested as pne in 200,000 failure rate.
If we manufacture some of our renewable energy needs in Australia, we give ourselves an opportunity to take control of these sustainability issues, while also weaning ourselves off a reliance on other nations for our energy.
We have been exploring detailed options for local PV Manufacturing in Australia.
It’s clear that in order to drive a domestic solar panel industry that includes domestic supply chains, we need manufacturing scale of at least 1GW per annum. Currently Tindo Solar, Australia’s only manufacturer, produces less than 50MW per annum.
Australia’s advantage lies in its existing resources industry, which already exports materials to be made into glass, aluminium frames, junction boxes, EVA and Backsheet. These could be made in Australia for a domestic solar panel industry.
To drive the realistic solar panel manufacturing scale of 1GW, we need governments to weight their renewables procurement toward Australian-made renewables products and to allow government-sponsored renewables projects to have a ‘free issue’ of Australian-made hardware.
When governments include ‘free issue’ components in tenders, they order and buy a core product in bulk and directly supply it to the project owners.
This assures quality of product and guaranteed volumes for the manufacturers. It also puts downward pressure on project costs because the free issue does not attract a margin.
The energy transition supports a more sustainable economy – it should not mean a flood of panels into landfill or millions of rooftop panels that produce less power than they should.
There’s an opportunity to ensure that a renewable energy system can deliver jobs, innovation and a reliable energy supply.
A win for the environment can also mean a win for Australians.
Richard Petterson (pictured) joined Tindo Solar, where he is now CEO, in 2022 after a career focused on the water utility sector, which included significant leadership roles in public and private companies including Queensland Urban Utilities and TRILITY. Originally an engineer, Richard has also worked in the manufacturing sector and was the Chairman of AdelaideAqua, a Joint Venture for the operation of the Adelaide Desalination Plant during its commissioning and operation.
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