NSW 'going circular in clean energy' issues paper

The UNSW SMaRT Centre welcomes a NSW Office of Energy and Climate Change issues paper seeking ideas on building more sustainable clean energy infrastructure and components.

The SMaRT Centre has for some years been calling for waste to be recycled and reformed to supply the huge quantities of materials and metals needed to electrify societies (see our latest op ed on this very issue).

Below the SMaRT Centre highlights some of the key elements of the issues paper, for which SMaRT intends to make a submission.

Issues paper webpage and to download

From the issues paper:


The path to a net zero emissions economy in the coming decades is driving exponential demand and 
deployment of clean energy technologies. This rapid growth is leading to concerns about environmental impacts, large increases in clean energy technology waste, resource supply constraints, national security risks, and a just transition for workers.

These concerns may hinder the clean energy transition if not adequately addressed. We need to make the entire cradle-to-grave process of designing, producing, deploying, and decommissioning clean energy technologies is sustainable. 

Adopting circular economy principles for clean energy technologies presents a significant opportunity for NSW to build new economic value from industries across the clean energy supply chain while reducing waste, emissions, and environmental impacts.

There are several barriers to advancing the circular economy. NSW lacks effective and mature 
recovery and reuse systems for many end-of-life clean energy products. NSW also has limited 
capacity to deliver key parts of the supply chain, such as material processing, manufacturing, and assembly.

Much of the local waste disposal data is based on projections, rather than captured information, which prevents an accurate understanding of NSW clean energy residual waste flows. It also makes it challenging to analyse disposal activities and trends.

The paper examines issues around the clean energy value chain for current and emerging clean energy generation and storage technologies. 

This includes solar photovoltaics (solar), wind, battery storage, electric vehicle (EV) batteries, hydroelectricity, pumped hydro energy storage (PHES) and green hydrogen. It covers all materials, equipment, and assets involved in clean energy technologies. This includes these technologies at residential, commercial and utility scale. 

The report finds:

  • The demand for critical minerals is outpacing supply:

Evidence suggests clean energy technologies typically require significantly more mineral resources
than existing fossil fuel-based energy production infrastructure. These minerals are known as 
critical minerals due to their essential role in modern technologies such as clean energy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) found that a concerted effort to reach the goals of the Paris 
Agreement would mean a quadrupling of mineral requirements for clean energy technologies by 
2040. The projected increase in demand for critical minerals raises concerns about the availability and 
reliability of supply

  • Circular design is not a strong consideration in many clean energy products
  • Circular design strategies could enhance clean energy developments 
  • Circular design supports macro-scale planning considerations
  • NSW lacks a strong local clean energy manufacturing sector
  • Rapid innovation reduces incentives to repair clean energy technologies
  • A range of barriers exist for reuse and repair markets:
  • Immature collection systems in NSW lead to a loss of resources
  • A lack of system coordination reduces collection opportunities
  • Increased recycling capacity will be required to manage growth in clean energy waste
  • Recycling of clean energy technologies can reduce carbon emissions and alleviate supply concerns:

Recycling will play an increasingly important role in meeting demand for materials in clean energy production through secondary supply of minerals and other materials. Recycling also provides an opportunity to build greater resilience by localising and shortening supply chains. European research suggests that by 2050 up to 75% of Europe’s mineral demand can be met through secondary supply (from recycled sources) if the right investments are made now. 

  • Materials used in clean energy technologies can be challenging and costly to recycle
  • Landfilling means valuable resources are lost from the economy
  • The disposal of clean energy residual waste can lead to harmful environmental impacts
  • NSW lacks disposal data for end-of-life clean energy technologies

Defining a circular economy

The circular economy involves shifting away from a linear ‘take, make, use and dispose’ approach towards one that maximises the value of resources. 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 circular economy is driven by 3 key principles:

  1. Eliminate waste and pollution
  2. Circulate and reuse products and materials (at their highest value)
  3. Regenerate nature.

The circular economy is a systems-based solution, centred on design, that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. It incorporates more than material flows – its principles are applied to other resource systems including water and energy. It transforms our throwaway economy into one where we eliminate waste, circulate resources, and adopt nature-positive, low carbon, resource-efficient systems and actions.