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.




Read more:
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.

Australia’s plantation boom has gone bust, so let’s make them carbon farms


Jason Alexandra, Charles Darwin University

In the rolling hills of Victoria’s Strzelecki Ranges, among paddocks of pasture and potatoes, stands a simple steel monument to the world’s tallest tree. The tree itself, which stood a mighty 115 m tall, was chopped down in the 1880s so that a registered surveyor could measure it.

Almost a century and a half later, Australia’s attitude to its forests is seemingly no less perverse.

Not chopping it down might have been a more fitting tribute.
Author provided

Not far north of where the tree once stood is the Latrobe Valley, dominated by some of Australia’s most carbon-intensive coalmines and power stations. Covering much of the surrounding hills are timber plantations, which store tonnes of carbon. Plantations can be used to soak up emissions – except the current rules don’t officially recognise this.

Intensive plantations don’t count as carbon sinks under Australia’s carbon farming rules. The boom that led to the creation of almost a million hectares of new plantation timber died with the global financial crisis – but with a bit of smart thinking these could be put to use as carbon farms, rather than being allowed to die off and returned to pasture.

Boom and bust

The see-sawing fortunes of Australian forestry have largely been driven by government policy. The 1990s saw major policy reforms, which spawned protests (including log trucks blockading the national parliament) and ultimately resulted in a widespread expansion of timber plantations.

The area of eucalyptus plantations grew from almost nothing in 1998 to about 1 million hectares by 2008, spurred by a massive influx of finance encouraged by the Managed Investments Act (1998), which turned plantations into tax-effective investments.

But then came the global financial crisis, which saw Managed Investment Scheme (MIS) companies like Timbercorp and Great Southern Plantations go bust. Shareholders and investors lost out, but the plantations themselves were in the ground.

Since then, plantation ownership has been consolidated into the hands of a few dominant players such as NewForests, which acquired more than 700,000 ha, and Global Forest Partners (more than 150,000 ha).

An expensive experiment

Some MIS plantations were poorly sited, in terms of climate and soils, used inappropriate species, or suffered pest or disease problems. Some have been written off, bulldozed and returned to pasture. Many more are likely to be.

Current estimates suggest that a third of the eucalyptus plantations are uneconomic with harvesting unlikely, another third will probably be harvested but are unlikely to be replanted. The rest will form Australia’s future hardwood estate. In this sense it has been a massive and expensive experiment.

This story shows the power of financial incentives, but reflects the problem of using tax inducements to fund an industry. For investors, tax deductions became the primary goal, rather than the quality of the investment.

The plantations’ boom and bust, with its focus on using fast money for fast-growing eucalypts, mostly for pulpwood, has obscured other important opportunities.

First, it shifted the focus away from the opportunities of integrating forestry into farming systems.

Second, the reputation of Australian forestry and forestry investments has almost certainly suffered.

Third, it may have blinded us to the potential of using Australia’s rich diversity of tree species for other purposes. Australia’s genetic gifts to the world include trees that grow prolifically in poor soils, can withstand fire and drought, store carbon, and produce hard, strong, richly coloured timbers.

A treasure trove for carbon farmers.
T. Grove/CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Already planted across millions of hectares throughout the world, Australia’s eucalypts, acacias and casuarinas offer a genetic treasure trove for carbon farming.

With much to learn about Australia’s diverse and productive flora – including how to farm it for carbon – it seems perverse that investment in Australian forestry research and education is now declining.

Carbon crops

Carbon markets and emerging technologies could fundamentally alter the way we conceive of trees as crops.

With a million hectares of eucalyptus plantation approaching maturity, there is almost certainly an active search for commercial markets for the standing timber – as wood fibre, for bioenergy fuel, or for non-wood products.

Nonetheless, large areas are likely to be reconverted to pasture, resulting in less carbon being stored in these landscapes. But there’s another, even simpler option for what to do with these plantations.

Perhaps it is time to reconsider whether to credit the carbon captured by these trees, given that their plantings were sponsored by our taxes. Changes to the carbon farming rules might make these and other multi-use plantations more viable.

The Australian Forest Industry estimates that Australia’s Kyoto-compliant forestry plantations (those established on cleared land since 1990) offset about 4.5% of Australia’s total emissions, but these are not credited under Australia’s Carbon Farming Initiative.

There are no approved CFI methodologies for plantations that sequester carbon and produce commercial timbers, but if there were, multipurpose plantations could form a key plank of Australia’s Direct Action carbon abatement policy.

In addition to carbon, there is potential for plantings that deliver economic development and ecological benefits in terms of restoring landscapes. But new models of plantations are needed, supported with different policy setting that drive their development.

Any large-scale bio-energy or carbon plantings in the future need to heed the lessons from Australia’s plantation boom and bust. In emerging carbon-constrained economies, how we define resources in rural landscapes, including carbon credits, will literally shape our future.

The Conversation

Jason Alexandra, Honorary Fellow, Charles Darwin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.