Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

Australia is doing a fantastic job with renewables. But what we do with the solar panels and wind turbines at end of life leaves a lot to be desired. According to the experts around 100,000 tonnes of solar panels will be redundant by 2035.

Today, with very low market value of recyclable materials in each panel there’s not a lot of incentive to make sure we harvest redundant materials.

New research by Professor Peter Majewski, a Research Professor in Advanced Materials at UniSA’s Future Industries Institute, says we need a lifetime stewardship scheme to make sure that renewables recycling will take off.

That’s because there’s no compelling economic imperative at present to recycle the materials.

“There is only a little over $5 in recyclable materials in each panel at current market value,” Professor Majewski said. It also takes a lot of energy to process the materials, which adds to the cost, he adds.

It’s a differet scenario for paint and tyres. Stewardship schemes for these products mean the disposal process is considered right at the start, during the design phase.

Professor Majewski says time and critical mass can change the business case for solar panels too.

“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.

“Investment is needed to establish a waste management scheme and to improve the technology available for that process.”   

Wind turbines are also tricky to recycle because they are so big.

“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,” he says.

“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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  1. It’s the same conundrum as with the shift to battery storage, which is a ticking time-bomb if we’re not careful.

    From a wind-turbine perspective it’s a tricky challenge that pales in comparison to the boating industry (fibreglass-wise), but is clearly a more pressing issue for the wind industry given the ‘green’ perception.

    At present, remote sites in Scotland (and elsewhere) are having to take heavy machinery to old turbine blades (which represent low-value fibreglass and balsa wood) and downsize them to fit them into skips. A mobile chemical treatment or pyrolysis process serving the whole sector is likely the way to go (if credibly trying to recover the fibres). Similarly, updating wind farm lifecycle costing (and decommissioning bonds) to properly reflect actual end of life costs would go a long way to starting to push a circular energy sector up the agenda vs. green energy from the same-old same-old linear industrial model.