There’s a looming waste crisis from Australia’s solar energy boom



Rooftop solar has boomed, but soalr panels only last about 20 years. What happens to the waste?
Flickr, CC BY-SA

Rodney Stewart, Griffith University; Hengky Salim, Griffith University, and Oz Sahin, Griffith University

As Australians seek to control rising energy costs and tackle the damaging impacts of climate change, rooftop solar has boomed.

To manage the variability of rooftop solar – broadly, the “no power at night” problem – we will also see a rapid increase in battery storage.

The question is: what will happen to these panels and batteries once they reach the end of their life?

If not addressed, ageing solar panels and batteries will create a mountain of hazardous waste for Australia over the coming decades.

Our research, published recently in the Journal of Cleaner Production, looked at the barriers to managing solar panel waste, and how to improve it.

A potentially toxic problem

Solar panels generally last about 20 years. And lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries, which will be the most common battery storage for solar, last between five and 15 years. Many solar panels have already been retired, but battery waste will start to emerge more significantly in 2025. By 2050 the projected amount of waste from retired solar panels in Australia is over 1,500 kilotonnes (kT).

Mass of end of life solar panels (a) and battery energy storage (b) 2020-2050.
Salim et al. 2019

Solar panels and batteries contain valuable materials such as metals, glass, ruthenium, indium, tellurium, lead and lithium.

Recycling this waste will prevent environmental and human health problems, and save valuable resources for future use.

Product stewardship

Australia has a Product Stewardship Act, which aims to establish a system of shared responsibility for those who make, sell and use a product to ensure that product does not end up harming the environment or people at the end of its life.

In 2016, solar photovoltaic (PV) systems were added to a priority list to be considered for a scheme design. This includes an assessment of voluntary, co-regulatory and regulatory pathways to manage the waste streams.

Sustainability Victoria (on behalf of the Victorian state government and with the support of states and territories) is leading a national investigation into a system of shared responsibility for end-of-life solar photovoltaic systems in Australia. Our research project has supported the assessment process.

Industries play a crucial role in the success of any product stewardship scheme. As we move into assessing and testing possible schemes, Australia’s PV sector (and other stakeholders) will have critical input.

A preferred product scope and stewardship approach will be presented to environment ministers. Scheme design and implementation activities are tentatively set to start in 2020.

Moving towards a circular economy

Federal and state environment ministers recently agreed to update the National Waste Policy to incorporate the principles of a circular economy.

This approach aims to reduce the need for virgin raw materials, extend product life, maintain material quality at the highest level, prioritise reuse, and use renewable energy throughout the process.




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Explainer: what is the circular economy?


Businesses in Australia currently have little incentive to innovate and improve the recycling rate. By helping implement circular business models such as lease, refurbishment and product-service systems, we can boost recycling, reduce collection costs and prolong tech lifetimes.

Requiring system manufacturers, importers or distributors to source solar panels and batteries designed for the environment makes both economic and environmental sense. By doing so, recyclers will recover more materials and achieve higher recirculation of recovered resources.

Consumers need to be provided with proper guidance and education for responsible end-of-life management of solar panels and batteries.

Immature domestic recycling capability

Now that China is no longer accepting waste for recycling, Australia needs to rapidly develop its domestic recycling industry. This will also spur job creation and contribute to the green economy.

Given Australia is struggling to recycle simple waste, such as cardboard and plastics, in a cost-effective way, we need to question our capability to deal with more complex solar PV and battery waste.

Australia currently has little capacity to recycle both solar panels and batteries.

And even if China were to suddenly start accepting Australia’s waste – an unlikely proposition – we cannot simply export our problem. As a signatory to the Basel Convention, exporting hazardous materials requires permits.

A previous study suggests half of Australia’s scrap metal is exported for overseas processing, which indicates the lack of incentives for domestic recycling.

Even if we build domestic recycling capability for solar panels and batteries, it will be underused while landfills remain available as a low-cost disposal option.

It’s promising that South Australia and the ACT have banned certain e-waste categories from entering landfill, while Victoria will implement an all-encompassing e-waste landfill ban from July 1 2019. This means any end-of-life electrical or electronic device that requires an electromagnetic current to operate must be recycled.

Creating a circular economy for solar and battery waste will need a strong commitment from policymakers and industry. Ideally, we need to prioritise reuse and refurbishment before recycling.

If we combine sensible policies with proactive business strategy and education to promote recycling rates, we can have a reliable and truly sustainable source of renewable energy in this country.


The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Michael Dudley from Sustainability Victoria to this article.The Conversation

Rodney Stewart, Professor, Griffith School of Engineering, Griffith University; Hengky Salim, PhD Candidate, Griffith University, and Oz Sahin, Senior Research Fellow, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How to answer the argument that Australia’s emissions are too small to make a difference


Matt McDonald, The University of Queensland

After a recent foray into the debate over Australia’s so-called “climate election”, I received plenty of critical replies to my argument that Australians should take climate action more seriously. The most common rebuttal was that Australians were right to focus on other issues at the ballot box because Australia’s contribution to global climate change is small anyway.

This is precisely the argument Alan Jones advanced in a now notorious Sky News segment in which he used a bowl of rice to explain away Australia’s climate obligations.

Australia, Jones noted, contributes only 1.3% of global carbon dioxide emissions from human activity, which in turn represents just 3% of the overall amount of CO₂ in the atmosphere, which in turn makes up little more than 0.04% of the whole atmosphere. So why, he asked while triumphantly brandishing a single rice grain, are we so obsessed with Australia’s climate policy when the planet is so big and the consequences of our actions are so tiny?




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This is a powerful critique and, on the face of it, a simple and compelling line of argument, which is precisely why it’s so often used. Why bother, if we lack the power to do anything that makes a difference?

But there are at least three obvious responses to it.

The ‘per capita’ problem

The first and most obvious response is that Australia emits much more than our fair share.

Sure, our emissions are 1.3% of the global total. But our population is 0.3% of the global total.

This isn’t the only way to allocate national emissions targets. But if rich countries like Australia aren’t doing more to reduce their disproportionately high emissions, what possible incentive is there for developing countries to take the issue seriously? Nations such as India, Brazil and China can ask – as indeed they have at various climate talks – why they should reduce emissions when Australia does so little.

In this sense, Australia’s position on climate action is significant, not only for the 1.3% of greenhouse gases we produce, but for the potential influence on global policy.

As a nation so proud of “punching above its weight” in fields such as sport and technology, Australia is missing a big chance to show global leadership on climate.

The ‘coal exports’ problem

The 1.3% statistic is only true if we focus purely on greenhouse emissions within Australia itself. Fair enough, you might say, given that this is the way the Paris Agreement, and the Kyoto Protocol before it, measures countries’ emissions.

But this approach excludes some significant factors.

First, it fails to take proper account of emissions created in one country while manufacturing goods for export to other countries. Emissions due to Chinese-produced goods destined for Australian consumers, for example, count towards China’s emissions, not Australia’s. If we take this “consumption shadow” into account, the climate impact of developed countries, including Australia, becomes much higher.

Second, there is a similar issue with coal exports. Coal dug up by one country but burned in another counts towards the latter’s emissions. As one of the world’s largest coal exporters, this is clearly important for Australia.

In 2012, the campaign group Beyond Zero Emissions estimated that if Australian coal was factored into Australia’s emissions, our contribution to global emissions would be 4% rather than 1.3%. This would make Australia the world’s sixth-largest contributor to climate change.

Are we responsible for what other countries do with Australian coal? According to the Paris treaty, the answer is no. But drug barons and arms dealers use similar arguments to wash their hands of drug addiction and war.

What’s more, Australia already limits a range of exports based on concerns about their use in importing countries, including weapons, uranium and even livestock.

So there’s certainly a precedent for viewing exports through the lens of our international responsibilities. And with the UN secretary-general joining recent calls to end all new coal power plants, a global coal treaty or even embargo might eventually force Australia’s hand.

The ‘capacity to respond’ problem

The third rebuttal to Alan Jones’s arguments is that Australia has far more capacity to take climate action than many other nations. Again, this works at two levels.

First, we’re rich. Australia is a top-20 world economy in terms of both size and average wealth. This means we are more able than most countries to manage the economic costs of moving away from fossil fuels.

Second, thanks to decades of relative climate policy inaction and modest targets, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit for Australia to ratchet up its climate ambition. This applies most obviously to the renewable energy sector, but also to areas such as energy efficiency and transport.

Australia’s land-clearing rates are also among the highest in the world – we are the only developed nation to feature in a 2018 WWF list of deforestation hotspots. Reducing this would significantly cut emissions while also protecting important carbon stores.

As economist John Quiggin has noted, the longer we wait to move away from fossil fuels, the more expensive it will be.

What does this all mean for Australia?

Jones’s argument is a beguilingly simplistic response to a wicked problem. Climate change is a global problem that requires global action. But the calculations around who should take the lead, and how much constitutes each nation’s fair share, are fiendishly complex.

But, by almost any measure, a country like Australia should be leading the way on climate policy, not being dragged kicking and screaming to take action that falls far behind that of comparable nations.




Read more:
Not everyone cares about climate change, but reproach won’t change their minds


The current reluctance to act seriously on climate change appears at best self-serving and at worst an outright moral failing.

We should take the argument that Australia’s climate contribution is insignificant with a grain of salt. Or perhaps rice.The Conversation

Matt McDonald, Associate Professor of International Relations, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.