Solar panels, wind turbine blades and the need for a waste strategy

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Researchers at the University of South Australia are trying to establish a stewardship scheme to ensure end-of-life strategies are in place for solar panel and wind energy waste.

With more than 21 percent of homes in Australia possessing a solar energy system, the country has the highest proportion of photovoltaic (PV) systems in the world. In Australia alone, it is expected 100,000 tonnes of solar panels will enter the national waste stream by 2035.

Currently, retired solar panels are classified as e-waste, meaning they already cannot go to landfill in Victoria and, with similar bans likely to follow in other states, there’s a clear need for alternative solutions. The low recycle value of PV panels is a major challenge facing the solar industry, made worse by the high energy requirements of collecting and recycling the items.

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

“There is only a little over five dollars in recyclable materials in each panel at current market value,” 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.

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

“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 [would be] pre-planned as an integral part of the product life cycle.”

Majewski believes policy and technology solutions working together 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,” he says.

The average 25-year life span of solar panels makes them a sound investment, delivering clean and affordable energy for decades after their cost is recovered.

A similar disposal problem exists in wind turbine blades, which are the size of airliner wings and are built to withstand hurricane-force conditions and are therefore notoriously difficult to recycle.

“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,” says Majewski, “and we are beginning to look at strategies for how to deal with these blades as they come offline.”

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

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