By the end of 2017, global solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity will rival nuclear, and by 2022 it could more than double nuclear capacity. There is an urgent need in Australia for both a product stewardship scheme for PV cells and a robust framework for rehabilitation of these large-scale solar generation facilities at end of life. Queensland’s material recovery sector provides unique opportunities for siting PV installations, particularly where grid-connection infrastructure is already located for landfill gas generation; for recovery of the critical but often hazardous materials contained within the panels, and for the rehabilitation of the sites at end of life back to agricultural land through high-performance organic soils and ameliorants.
The Clean Energy Council, has calculated that renewable energy projects will deliver an unprecedented $8.7 billion in Australian investment in 2017, creating more than 4680 direct jobs. Here in Queensland, we are leading the way with more than $1.6 billion invested in new large-scale projects, creating more than 1,300 construction jobs. Indeed, Queensland has 14 clean energy projects, the highest in Australia, under construction this year alone.
Queensland currently has 1,117 MW (nearly 1.2GW) of committed large-scale, solar PV projects underway and looking to the broader pipeline, this is even more impressive running at an additional 7,350 MW. Whilst not all of the projects in the pipeline will make it to construction, Queensland is set to become the solar capital of Australia.
Certainly, there is a very large amount of transmission capacity available in Queensland for non-synchronous generation as shown by the latest Powerlink report (see p.5 of the Generation Capacity Guide).
As a low-end estimate Powerlink suggests around 10,350 MW of available capacity. This compares to approximately 7,500 MW of capacity needed to reach a 50% renewable energy target. Having said that, there may be situations where generators of all types face localised constraints, due to the load in the area, generation profile and other issues. But Powerlink, Energy and Ergon will aim to minimise these through a rigorous connection process.
In the case of renewables, part of the current Queensland Government’s policy is to encourage diversity of supply – hence the Clean Energy Hub transmission proposal, which has the potential to unlock up to 2,000 MW of wind, pumped hydro and solar resources in north Queensland.
The Government, through the Energy Security Taskforce, is also looking at enhanced interconnection between Queensland and other states which has the potential to assist the integration of more non-synchronous generation including solar.
Recovery of critical (precious and rare earth) materials
The development of a product stewardship scheme for PV systems and large storage batteries were listed separately by the Federal Government for consideration under the Product Stewardship Act 2011 in June 2016–17. Listing provides a signal to the market of the Federal Government’s interest in evaluating the rationale and feasibility of some form of stewardship for PV systems and/or energy storage batteries under the Act for the next financial year.
There has been significant growth in the installation of solar systems in Australia since 2010, and as of June 2016 there are over 1.57 million, mostly domestic, solar PV installations. This number will rise as large-scale facilities reach investment decision driven by ambitious targets, such as the 50 per cent renewable energy target for Queensland.
The End of Life (EoL) of the PV system components ranges from between 10–30 years, suggesting all of the Australian states and territories will have a significant volume of EoL equipment requiring processing or disposal between 2020–2030. The supply company and/or installer (if identifiable) may not still be in business after 30 years and this trend has been seen across the domestic installation market.
Some work has been undertaken to develop a responsible stewardship approach to support new PV systems and/or batteries across the whole life cycle, but it is still in development. Influencing the design and manufacturing of new technology is challenging, and because of the manufacturing structure of the solar industry, Australia must consider harmonising its policies with international approaches.
The Australian solar industry is highly fragmented and still maturing. Integrating responsible management at EoL for high-value resource recovery is an important way of strengthening the emergent markets for renewable energy systems. Presently however, the majority of PV systems and components are imported, making product stewardship difficult to implement with high volumes of orphan products. Product stewardship is also unlikely to retrospectively apply to existing facilities and some previous product stewardships schemes have taken up to 10 years to fully develop and implement.
There is a growing number of inverters and batteries requiring EoL treatment which is expensive and the costs associated with this will rise significantly into the future given the hazardous nature of their components, likely future disposal bans and rising disposal and treatment costs.
During 2016, the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection provided funding to the Institute for Sustainable Futures to undertake workshop and preparatory background research into establishing a product stewardship scheme for PV systems. The final report is well worth a read and highlights other jurisdictions which have implemented product stewardship tools.
One example is California, which like Queensland, has high solar PV penetration. California introduced the California Photovoltaic Panel Collection and Recycling Act (2014) under the Hazardous Waste Control Law. The Act requires all PV manufacturers, individually, collectively, or in collaboration with PV vendors, establish a PV waste collection and recycling program with targets specified within the Act. The Act promotes transparency and information sharing and manufacturers are legally required to publicly report: the number of panels collected, the amount of hazardous materials per panel, provide an evaluation of program effectiveness, and report costs and revenue associated with the programs. PV manufacturers are charged annual and deposit fees by the Department of Toxic Substances Control which is responsible for approval and oversight of all PV waste management programs. These fees contribute to the Photovoltaic Panel Collection Administration Fund which ensures that the cost burden associated with the administration of the scheme is not passed onto tax payers or the state.
As a rule of thumb, the current PV installations require a minimum of 1.5-2.5 hectares per MW of installed capacity (depending on technology). This does not include the land required for substations, inverters, batteries and communication towers. As such, the planned 1000MW facility at Wandoan and the 2000MW facility at Bulli Creek will have considerable land requirements.
Across Queensland, the land acquired for siting these solar power stations has been evenly mixed between sold and rental offerings.
Of the 1.2GW of PV capacity currently planned for Queensland, around 40% is located on good quality, highly productive agricultural land. Recent media reports surrounding the application of a 397,000 panel solar farm on 200ha in Bathurst, NSW has included statements from local agronomists that solar farms create dead zones for agricultural land.
“Where the solar panels block UV light, this disrupts soil microbiology. When carbon is stripped from the aggregates by the soil biology the aggregates become compressed and the soil then becomes hard and compacted. Where stock such as sheep or cattle are permitted to graze on nutritionally poor plants they do not receive the adequate levels of minerals to meet their daily requirements therefore they have to graze more of the plants per square meter. This leads to the land being less productive because it can only sustain a smaller number of stock per acre due to the lack of nutrition in the plants. Another negative factor that affects plants that are nutritionally poor is that they are far more susceptible to insect and disease attack and there is also a high potential for weeds to take hold around the panels who prefer a tight compacted soil and will thrive in an environment where the pasture is not as dense and healthy”.
Other concerns have included the long-term impact of weed suppression practices for those facilities with no grazing and the increased run-off associated with large areas of bare earth.
As these facilities end their 20-30 year life cycle, some may be returned to the latest renewable technology, but in cases where the land was rented and perhaps, due to future food security concerns, many of these facilities will likely require substantial rehabilitated. This will include removal of the aggregate footings, recycling of the steel framing and the panels (including the critical materials); and a restoration plan for the degraded soils to bring them back to some level of production. This is where high-performance organic products will have a critical role – to undo decades of soil degradation.
The resource recovery sector has a strong opportunity into the future to work closely with the clean energy sector on a range of technologies, be it assisting with the safe and efficient recycling of solar facilities at end of life, through to the extensive range of energy from waste technologies. Together we can build a sustainable low-carbon future.