Saving retired renewables from waste streams

Tuesday, 23 February, 2021

Saving retired renewables from waste streams

Australia has the highest proportion of household photovoltaic (PV) systems in the world, with more than 21% of homes possessing a solar energy system. It is estimated that more than 100,000 tonnes of solar panels will enter Australia’s waste stream by 2035.

Solar panels have an average lifespan of 25 years, delivering a good return for decades after their cost is recovered, but industry experts are starting to ask what will happen to all these solar panels when they need replacing.

Professor Peter Majewski is leading research at the University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute (FII) to help establish a lifetime stewardship scheme for Australia’s PV industry.

Professor Peter Majewski.

“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,” Professor Majewski said.

A major challenge facing the solar industry is the low recycle value of PV panels, coupled with the high energy requirements of current collection and recycling processes. Professor Majewski explained that investment is needed to establish a waste management scheme and improve the technology available.

“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.”

A similar disposal problem exists in relation to wind turbine blades, 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. 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.”

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