With the challenges associated with solar waste becoming increasingly significant, the New South Wales government has released an issues paper seeking to identify new economic value in the renewable energy transition while also ensuring the rollout of clean energy technologies is as environmentally sustainable as possible.
The path to a net-zero emissions economy is driving exponential demand and deployment of clean energy technologies, including rooftop and large-scale solar, and the New South Wales (NSW) government is now looking to apply a circular lens to ensure a renewable energy future that minimises waste and creates additional value in supply chains.
Solar is leading the clean energy revolution in Australia with about 80 million PV panels already installed and many of those are approaching the end of their life. The federal government has identified solar materials as the fastest growing electronic waste stream in Australia – by 2030, solar panels are expected to create a cumulative waste volume of more than 500,000 tonnes and that is predicted to increase to more than 1.1 million tonnes by 2040.
It is forecast that by 2025 NSW alone will generate between 3,000 and 10,000 tonnes of waste solar panels and battery storage systems each year. By 2035, that is expected to increase to between 40,000 and 71,000 tonnes per annum.
To prepare for this emerging waste stream, the state government has released the Going circular in clean energy issues paper to stimulate discussion on how NSW can create more value from a circular clean energy sector.
“Scaling up clean energy is critical however it is vital that this transition is as environmentally sustainable as possible,” the NSW government said.
The NSW Office of Energy and Climate Change (OECC) said linear supply chains currently dominate the uptake of clean energy technologies and adopting circular economy principles presents a significant opportunity to build new economic value, while reducing waste and environmental impacts.
“The circular economy offers opportunities for new and better growth that … will promote the recovery and reuse of materials, reduce environmental impacts, enhance local manufacturing and create jobs in NSW,” it said.
The circular economy involves shifting away from a linear ‘take, make, use and dispose’ approach towards one that maximises the value of resources and ensures the entire cradle-to-grave process of designing, producing, deploying, and decommissioning those technologies is sustainable.
“This means instead of taking resources from the earth, using them once, and disposing of them in landfill, resources are kept in use and circulating through the economy for as long as possible,” the OECC said.
The NSW government highlighted that the issues paper does not propose solutions but aims to start a conversation to help identify key barriers and opportunities to adopting a circular economy for clean energy.
The paper focuses on energy generation and storage technologies including PV, wind, battery storage, electric vehicle (EV) batteries, hydroelectricity, pumped hydro energy storage (PHES) and green hydrogen.
The release of the paper follows a warning from the federal government that businesses and manufacturers are on notice over their recycling practices, and that the solar and electronics industries will soon face regulation.
The issue of solar waste has been on a “minister’s priority list” for stewardship action for years but Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek recently confirmed that new Australian recycling regulations are on the horizon to prevent tonnes of potentially hazardous waste entering the environment.
“I have moved solar panels and electronic goods from that minister’s priority list into a category where I will regulate because they [businesses and manufacturers] have been warned but haven’t got their act together,” she said.
“The next step is to regulate for solar panels and electronic goods to be recycled, and to have a stricter set of rules about recycling in these industries.”
Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory have already banned solar panels ending up in landfill with regulations in place dictating they have to be taken to e-waste drop off points to be recycled.
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