The Massive Solar And Wind Waste Problem

The Massive Solar And Wind Waste Problem
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  • Both solar power and wind power have grown at a remarkable rate in the last decade, and as these industries grow the waste associated with them also grows.
  • There is currently no comprehensive plan for how to deal with solar and wind waste, with solar waste alone expected to account for up 1 million tonnes by the end of the decade.
  • In both the wind and solar industries, there is an increasing number of companies looking to solve these waste problems and create a circular economy.

Solar and wind power could have a massive waste problem if not dealt with soon, with growing uncertainty over what to do with components at the end of their lifespan. Some countries are now investing heavily in recycling operations for no longer functioning solar panels and wind turbines, while many others are uncertain about how to best tackle the problem sustainably. But one thing’s for sure, wind and solar power will be a lot less green unless governments worldwide introduce comprehensive regulations on how to manage renewable energy waste appropriately. 

The end-of-life management of solar photovoltaics (PV) occurs when solar equipment is retired from operations. With millions of solar installations in operation in the U.S. alone and hundreds of millions of solar panels in use, it is important to consider what to do with this equipment once it can no longer be used. By 2020, solar power operations were providing around 40% of the U.S. electric generation capacity, a dramatic increase from 4% just a decade earlier. At present, lots of the solar panels in use are young, with many having been installed since 2017. As the lifespan of a PV module is between 30 and 35 years, on average, many companies across the U.S. have put off considering what to do with solar industry waste up until now. 

But the government needs to put comprehensive regulations in place for the disposal and recycling of solar components now, before the issue snowballs. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) believes that the cumulative end-of-life PV waste in the U.S. will reach between 0.17 and 1 million tonnes by the end of the decade. At the top end, that equates to around 0.5% of the total U.S. annual solid waste. At present, as the cost of recycling is far higher than disposal, many companies have opted to send old solar equipment to landfills. By 2050, the U.S. could have as many as 10 million total tonnes of panels. Considering that the U.S. is expected to have the second-largest number of end-of-life solar panels globally by 2050, the government must establish regulations for dealing with waste solar equipment in line with the country’s green transition. 

When it comes to wind power – one of the fastest-growing sources of electricity generation, there is just as great a need to establish a circular economy to avoid old turbines ending up in landfills. We are beginning to see more frequent innovations in turbine manufacturing, thanks to years of investment in research and development, meaning that turbines can now be engineered using fewer materials, resources, and energy. Much of the equipment is also developed with consideration for its end-of-life transition, as many turbines are now longer lasting and easy to break down for reuse. 

Since 2021, the Wind Energy Technologies Office (WETO) has been working with the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), as well as industry and educational partners, to establish wind blade recycling technologies and develop a circular economy for entire wind turbines. And now, companies are seeing wind turbine, solar panel, and lithium-ion EV battery recycling as big business. Several private startups across the U.S. have seen the mistakes of the past –when coal mines and oil wells were not properly decommissioned – and have used these examples to promote green energy recycling. 

Solarcycle is just one of the companies hoping to solve the waste problem, having launched its first recycling facility in Odessa, Texas. At its plant, Solarcycle extracts 95% of the materials from end-of-life solar panels to be reused in the industry. It sells the silver and copper recovered from the panels on commodity markets, as well as selling glass, silicon, and aluminum to panel manufacturers and solar farm operators. 

The CEO of Solarcycle, Suvi Sharma, stated: “Solar is becoming the dominant form of power generation.” Sharma explained, “But with [greater capacity] comes a new set of challenges and opportunities. We have done a phenomenal job making solar efficient and cost-effective, but really have not done anything yet on making it circular and dealing with the end-of-life [panels].” 

At present, around 90% of end-of-life solar panels end up in landfills. But Sharma expects this to shift significantly over the next decade, as landfill costs increase and innovations in recycling drive costs down. In fact, the market for recycled solar panel materials is expected to be worth over $2.7 billion by 2030, an increase from $170 million in 2022. It is expected to continue growing over the following decades to reach a value of $80 billion by 2050. And the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Laboratory (NREL) believes recycled materials could meet between 30 and 50% of U.S. solar manufacturing needs by 2040 if the government puts recycling regulations in place now. 

While there is a significant solar and wind power and battery waste problem at present, there is much optimism around the growth of the clean-energy component recycling industry. As the need for better disposal methods becomes clear, in support of a green transition, more companies across the U.S. (and the globe) are investing in developing recycling operations, which will help ensure that renewable energy projects remain green.

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