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Cleaning up renewable energy: stewardship strategies for solar panels and wind turbine blades

University of South Australia Media Release

Researchers at the University of South Australia are leading a national push to ensure the dream of renewable energy doesn’t become a nightmare of waste management.

Australia has the highest proportion of household photovoltaic (PV) systems in the world, with more than 21 per cent of homes – or around 2.59 million – now possessing a solar energy system.

With most PV systems paying themselves off in three to five years, the average 25-year life span of solar panels makes them an excellent investment, delivering a good return for decades after their cost is recovered.

Eventually, however, all good things come to an end, and increasingly, industry experts are starting to ask what we’re going to do with all these solar panels when they are due to be replaced.

In Australia alone it is estimated more than 100,000 tonnes of solar panels will enter the national waste stream by 2035.

Solar energy expert, Professor Peter Majewski, is leading research at UniSA’s Future Industries Institute (FII) to help establish a lifetime stewardship scheme for Australia’s PV industry, ensuring end-of-life strategies are in place long before solar waste peaks.

“We have time to plan for this and ensure the processes are in place, but we have to start acting now, as the right practices may take some time to implement,” Prof Majewski says.

“There are good stewardship programs in place for products such as paint and tyres in Australia, and we would like to see a similar system in place for solar, where the disposal process is pre-planned as an integral part of the product lifecycle.”

While retired solar panels are relatively safe and stable, they are classified as e-waste, meaning they cannot be put into landfill in Victoria. With similar bans likely to follow in other states, the need for alternative solutions is clear.

One major challenge facing the solar industry is the low recycle value of PV panels, coupled with the high energy requirements of the currently available collection and recycling processes.

“There is only a little over $5 in recyclable materials in each panel at current market value,” Prof Majewski says.

“The high volume of panels will eventually offset this low value to an extent, but at the moment, we can’t expect market forces alone to drive recycling, and investment is needed to establish a waste management scheme and to improve the technology available for that process.”

Prof Majewski’s team at FII are currently working on developing both policy and technological solutions to PV’s end of life problem, and he believes the integration of both dimensions will be key to a successful stewardship scheme.

“Regulation around collection and recycling targets will be important to drive the process initially, but developing the best disposal techniques is essential, and this may even influence manufacturing techniques and what goes into the panels to start with.”

End-of-life management for PV isn’t the only challenge facing the renewables industry, and a similar disposal problem exists in relation to the blades of wind turbines, which are large and notoriously difficult to recycle.

“These blades are the size of an airliner wing, and they have been built to withstand hurricane-force winds, so they are a big challenge when they get to the end of their life,” Prof Majewski.

“As with solar panels, that disposal challenge requires planning and preparation, but approached the right way it doesn’t have to be an insurmountable problem, and we are beginning to look at strategies for how to deal with these blades as they come offline.”

 

(Professor Peter Majewski is Research Professor in Advanced Materials at UniSA’s Future Industries Institute).

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7 comments

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  1. Andrew J. Smith

    Interesting and essential for any sector manufacturing and wishing to support their endeavours with the environment in mind.

    However, surprising how long it takes, not helped by much business literature in the social sciences that used to talk about ‘cradle to cradle’ manufacturing ensuring no waste, lowering costs and increasing margins; more about ‘green washing’.

    Fast forward to now it has change to ‘circular’ meaning environment must be included as part of the holistic process e.g. recycling used products; again can be value for the producer and of course legislation in some places to ensure.

    At least with the solar and wind sectors there should be implicit understanding and action on cleaning up and recycling old artifacts.

  2. wam

    The anti-renewables rabbottians have been circulating their american counterparts’ email with details of astronomical costs of waste in renewable hardware.
    But provide no answer to the cost of rehabilitation after mining?

  3. Ken Fabian

    A belated comment before this story slips from view –

    We do need to keep this in perspective. Coal burning in Australia produces 12 million tons of heavy metals contaminated coal ash (fly ash) waste each year, with less potential for recycling and safe disposal than there is for used solar panels. That is just the “clean” Aussie coal burned here in Australia, not what we export.

    Coal ash may be the second most abundant sort of waste Australia makes. Number one is (though most people probably don’t know it) CO2, by a huge margin. Like 5 times more than ALL other waste combined.

    Waste from renewable energy is real and should not be neglected, as is waste from EVERY industry. We will be doing things at scales much greater than ever before, whether it is renewable energy driven or not, including recycling and waste disposal. Better it be renewables driven.

    If our future is powered by solar then we will have made (before recycling) 1.5 million tons of waste solar panels by 2050 and avoided 360 million tons of coal ash… Well, maybe not – progressively less coal means… lacking the maths I guess half that? But 180 million tons versus 1.5 million tons of solar waste comes out at 120x more. Solar would have to make a LOT more waste to come even close. And then there is CO2…

  4. Florence Howarth

    Won’t all wind & solar be recycled as time goes on? Even tyres can be used to fire green steel mills today. Replacing coal or coke. One on the South Coast, another being used in the Hunter.

  5. Ken Fabian

    @Florence – there will be more recycling of EVERYTHING and people like the author, Professor Majewski will help it happen.

    I am not so enthusiastic about displacing coal by burning used tyres – it does get rid of the used tyres but there are not nearly enough used tyres to replace more than a small portion. And I am not sure it reduces overall emissions; if the tyres were made with clean energy first it will help, as making everything with clean energy helps.

    The climate problem requires displacing those processes that use coal and coke with ones using clean electricity, and (very likely) Hydrogen made with clean electricity.

  6. Terence Mills

    The day is not far off when conventional PV solar roof panels will be history. Replaced by PV electricity generating paints and applications that can be sprayed on to roofs and other surfaces.

    https://www.solarreviews.com/blog/solar-paint-hydrogen-quantum-dot-perovskite-solar-cells

    This technology is being developed here in Australia and elsewhere but will inevitably be commercialised in China unless the neanderthals in our government grasp the future and not just lumps of coal.

  7. Ken Fabian

    @ Terrence – renewable energy is a fast moving target; the critics tend to cite outdated information and already undercut “high” costs and wonder why their shots keep missing the mark. Talking up solar waste is – unfortunately – one plank of a broader pro fossil fuels/anti renewables platform. Fortunately there are real efforts to reduce it and – as a bit of looking reveals – even the “dirtiest” solar makes far less waste than the “cleanest” fossil fuels.

    I expect the future of solar will be something akin to what your link talks about, as something that can be included on roofing and cladding as a low cost extra – or even as a “solar for free” sweetener. Energy abundance – not energy poverty will be the end result.

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