Renewable energy is great, but renewable waste is a real problem. Here’s what can be done about it.
Renewable energy is a great way to power the future and pave the way for more sustainable living. But it’s not perfect. As renewable infrastructure reaches the end of its life cycle, the resultant waste can be damaging for the environment, sometimes as bad as or worse than fossil fuel pollution. Rather than scrap the entire idea, though, the industry can take steps to minimize this renewable waste to keep forging ahead. These are the big problems and potential solutions for renewable waste, courtesy of the EPA’s briefing paper “Renewable Energy Waste Streams: Preparing for the Future.”
Problem: Old Solar Panels
The sun has another good 4.5 billion years in it, so we don’t have to worry too much about building an energy system around harnessing its heat. Solar panels, on the other hand, don’t last quite so long. When they break, toxic chemicals such as lead and cadmium leak out, and the panels themselves are difficult to recycle. So they often go to landfills at the end of their life cycles. Given the rapid growth of the solar industry, that could result in millions of tons of renewable waste in the coming decades.
Finding new ways and new materials to construct solar panels is a priority for the industry. Earlier models contained more silicon than new solar panels do, which makes it easier and more cost-effective to recycle as well as reducing the likelihood of panels cracking. In the short term, the amount of silver they contain (about 9-10% of annual silver supply goes to solar panels) can make recycling them worthwhile for some investors. In the long run, though, the industry will continue to dramatically reduce how much silver it uses. Figures are down 70% from 2010. California has designated solar panels “universal waste,” a move that aims to increase compliance with renewable waste management and storage. Washington state requires end-of-life recycling. More recycling and more incentive to recycle will go a long way.
Problem: Old Windmills
Comparatively speaking, windmills don’t generate that much power and there’s a lot that goes into setting them up. They’re large and cumbersome and have to be hauled long distances from manufacturing plant to wind farm. To generate more power, the parts need to be bigger, which sets off a cycle of unintended consequences. Like solar panels, wind turbines are also tough to recycle. Dismantling wind turbines at the end of a wind farm’s lease can prove expensive.
Solution: Extended life
Wind farm contracts can be drawn in such a way that landowners have the option to extend or renew their leases and add new clauses in keeping pace with advances in renewable waste recycling technology. There is a growing market for used turbines in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America, the EPA briefing paper points out. Sending turbines there allows these countries to build renewable energy infrastructures without as much startup cost. In the Netherlands, fiberglass from blades goes toward playground equipment. Veolia North America is repurposing it for cement production in the first US blade recycling program.
Problem: Old Batteries
Lithium-ion batteries power electric vehicles that can rid the atmosphere of significant levels of carbon dioxide. They’re not as difficult to recycle as windmills and solar panels, but the process is often expensive. “The value of the raw minerals reclaimed from common battery recycling processes is only about a third of the cost of the recycling operation. At the present time the expense of extracting lithium from old batteries is five times more than that of mining for lithium,” the EPA report says. So there’s limited incentive to break down and recycle the elements of a lithium-ion battery.
Solution: Adaptive Reuse
Fortunately, there are tons of ways to repurpose lithium-ion batteries and get more juice out of them. Car manufacturers are finding all sorts of creative uses. “In Japan, Nissan repurposed batteries to power streetlights. In Paris, Renault has batteries backing up elevators, and GM is backing up its data center in Michigan with used Chevy Volt batteries. BMW AG, Toyota Motor Corp., BYD Co., and several renewable-energy storage suppliers are also among those trying to create an aftermarket for end-of-life electric vehicle batteries,” the report states. It does note that these are only a delaying tactic. The Department of Energy’s ReCell program, meanwhile, is aimed at making lithium-ion battery recycling more profitable by lowering cost and increasing recovery of high-value materials.
These solutions are hardly the end-all-be-all to some very real problems posed by renewable waste. But it is comforting to know that private companies and government agencies recognize the issues and are working toward solutions.
“Recycling is a critical piece of our future for not only consumer commodities like paper and plastic, but also the ever-expanding renewable energy sector,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said. “Without a strategy for their end-of-life management, so-called green technologies like solar panels, electric vehicle batteries and windmills will ultimately place the same unintended burdens on our planet and economy as traditional commodities.”