UniSA: Cleaning up renewable energy
Researchers at the University of South Australia are leading a national push to ensure the dream of renewable energy doesn’t come with a nightmare of waste management.
Australia has the highest multitude of household PV systems in the world with more than 21% of homes, about 2.59 million, now possessing a solar energy system.
While PV systems do pay themselves off in three-to-five years, they do average a 25-year life span and eventually have to be disposed of. 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.
UniSA’s Future Industries Institute (FII) leading researcher Professor Peter Majewski is helping establish a lifetime stewardship scheme for Australia’s PV industry, ensuring end-of-life strategies are in place long before 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,” Peter 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,” Peter adds.
“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.”
Peter and the team at FII are working on developing both policy and technological solutions to the issue.
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.