Renewable energy is supposed to be clean energy. It emits no greenhouse gases. But, as it turns out, it produces a mountain of waste. There will soon be much more of it. So far, it hasn’t overwhelmed our waste management system. But we’d better prepare now to prevent a crisis later.
Critics scoff that something supposedly good for the environment causes environmental problems. Many environmentalists are likewise dismayed. We must all realize that humans can’t do anything that doesn’t affect the environment.
As a whole, Americans have only cared about the environment for a little more than 50 years. And some of us still don’t. Zero carbon footprint can’t happen overnight, if ever, no matter how much people demand it.
Potentially, recycling waste from renewable energy can become a lucrative industry, but it still has some technological hurdles. Recycling solar panels in particular will both create new panels and reduce mining and production of virgin materials. It will also supply minerals critical to national defense. So far, however, US has no companies dedicated to recycling renewable energy waste.
Waste from wind energy
Wind turbine blades are mostly made of fiberglass composite. They must withstand hurricane-force winds. Their sheer size makes them difficult to handle. They can be longer than the wing of a Boeing 747. It’s not possible to haul them away in an ordinary truck.
So when a blade reaches the end of its useful life, someone must first cut it into manageable pieces. It requires a special diamond-encrusted saw. Loaded on a tractor-trailer, these fragments then go to one of the few landfills that accept them.
The Electric Power Research Institute estimates that all blade waste from now through 2050 will equal only .015% of the total municipal solid waste generated just in 2015. And actually, the wind industry discards less composite materials than the building industry. Landfilling is so far the least expensive and safest disposal option, but it requires digging pits 30 feet deep.
The wind industry hasn’t used such gigantic blades for very long, but their lifespan is hardly more than a decade. Wind farms in the US will retire about 8,000 blades a year for at least the next four years. That’s but a fraction of tens of thousands of blades taken out of service throughout the world. As the number of annual installations continues to grow, so will the future number of decommissioned blades.
Waste from solar energy
Actually, the problems with managing waste from wind farms are less serious than from other energy sources. Inert fiberglass won’t leach into groundwater or otherwise present environmental hazards.
Solar panels contain heavy metals, including cadmium, gallium, and lead. They also contain copper aluminum, and plastic, but silicon-based panels are about 72% glass (silicon). While solar waste is less toxic than byproducts of nuclear or fossil fuels, broken panels still contain toxic components that can release pollutants.
Recycling solar panels requires separating the silicon and the various metals and removing impurities from the silicon that come from the process of making the panels. So far, no pilot project has demonstrated ability to do it cost-effectively at the required scale.
According to analysts at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, by the end of the decade, some 8,000 solar panels will be taken out of service throughout the world. By the middle of the century, that number will reach 80 million, 10% of estimated electronic waste. Until we find ways to recycle it, all those panels will have to go to landfills.
Solar energy didn’t become widespread until the beginning of this century. Solar panels typically come with 25-30-year warranties. That means that the first wave of end-of-life panel removal hasn’t yet begun. What hits landfills now is limited to either panels installed before solar energy became common or that have suffered some kind of weather damage.
The solar industry has grown at an annual rate of 50% over the past decade because of generous tax credits and other incentives. The industry has devoted more effort to engineering the production and installation of solar panels than their removal and disposal. Fortunately, life cycle scientists have begun to explore the best ways to dispose of them.
Recycling waste from renewable energy
Fortunately, the industry is looking for ways to recycle retired wind turbine blades and solar panels.
Europe has regulations that require manufacturers to take back discarded equipment. So they have begun to discover recycling procedures. The US has no such regulations, either at the federal or state level. Neither does the US have any standard disposal protocols.
Veolia Environnement is a leading European recycler of solar panels. It is also among several European companies looking for ways to recycle old blades. It has started a pilot project to grind the blades to dust and extract chemicals from it.
Global Fiberglass Solutions, a recent startup in Sweetwater, Texas, has begun to experiment with breaking old blades into pellets and fiberboards for walls and floors in construction projects. Don Lilly, its CEO, estimates it can process about 6,000 or 7,000 blades a year. It plans to open another plant in Iowa, which will increase its capacity
The Solar Energy Industries Association has found several partners that offer recycling services. Its website shows six. Other companies exist. One called Recycle PV doesn’t yet operate on a large scale, but it is collaborating with one of Veolia’s partners to send American panels to Europe for recycling.
Fortunately, recycling of waste from renewable energy has started before the first deluge of retired equipment hits. We have a looming problem, but because of advance preparation, not a looming crisis.
‘They need to be ready.’ Study warns of growing solar waste / David Iaconangelo, E&E News. July 20, 2020
The state of solar panel recycling in the U.S. / Sarah Lozanova, Earth911. February 4, 2020
Waste in the renewable energy industry and how we can sustainably power our world / Emily Folk, Renewable Energy Magazine. March 5, 2020
Wind turbine blades can’t be recycled, so they’re piling up in landfills / Chris Martin, Bloomberg, February 5, 2020
Hail-damaged solar panels. US Air Force photo by Matt Coleman-Foster
Turbine blade. Photo by Chris English. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Solar farm. Photo by Thomas R Machnitzk from Wikimedia Commons
Wind farm. © Copyright Stephen Craven and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence