This article originally appeared in our Circularity Weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.
I subscribe to a lot of newsletters and follow quite a few Google alerts in this role. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job. I subscribed to a lot of newsletters in my last role too. The difference now is that I actually read (most of) them.
When you subscribe to this volume of newsletters and alerts, you are bound to see a lot of takes from folks like me (and real journalists alike) about the same topics over and over. One story might say that recyclable single use cups are great, while another might argue they are the worst. One story might laud progress toward compostable clothing, another might say it is a waste of effort.
There is one topic where nearly every sustainability pundit seems to be in agreement, though: The challenge of dealing with solar panel waste. Each headline on this topic makes it seem as if solar panel waste is the worst thing that’s ever happened…
I’m not here to argue that we shouldn’t address what to do with solar panels at the end of their first useful life, far from it. I believe that we need innovation in solar panel recovery and recycling, as well as significant research into designing panels for recyclability, refurbishment or remanufacturing from the outset. The same can be said (and the same doomsday articles exist) for wind turbines.
Some articles on this subject do yeoman’s work to address the opportunity, both environmental and financial, of cracking the code on end-of-first-use treatment of renewable energy infrastructure, and they should be applauded for doing so. What I don’t see very often addressed in these articles, though, is the waste problem with our other forms of energy. That’s what I’m going to prod at a bit here, however incompletely.
Let’s start with the form of energy being phased out most right now by renewables…
If folks think renewables have a toxic waste problem, wait until they meet solar and wind’s old dirty uncle. Coal-fired power produces coal ash, and a lot of it. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic. Without proper management, these contaminants can pollute waterways, ground water, drinking water, and the air.” This coal ash is dealt with in a variety of ways depending on the facility’s permits, but the systems put in place to contain coal ash fail, with two notable and recent incidents in Kingston, Tennessee (2008) and Eden, North Carolina (2014). Not only is coal ash toxic, it is one of the largest industrial waste streams in the U.S. at over 100 million tons per year. To put that in context, the U.S. isn’t expected to hit 1 million tons of solar panel waste until 2030.
What about coal’s clean cousin, natural gas? Well, it is a lot cleaner from a solid waste perspective, with very little solid waste being created beyond any disposal of emissions control media and the decommissioning of gas-fired power plants. Waste streams are associated with exploration for, and production of, natural gas. These include impacts to freshwater during the unconventional production of natural gas, a.k.a. hydraulic fracturing.
Hazardous waste is clearly an issue with nuclear power production, so I don’t think we need to get into too much detail here. While the volumes of nuclear waste are quite low (about 2,000 metric tons per year), the implications of a release are much larger than those for other energy-producing technologies.
One main point on hydroelectric power. While waste is not of particular importance to hydro, other ecological considerations surely are (land use implications, wildlife impacts and life-cycle GHG emissions). As these are difficult to compare apples-to-apples with waste, we’ll leave it at that for now.
The solid waste problem for wind is similar to that of solar. Wind turbines generally have lifetimes on the order of 20 years, most of the weight of a turbine is metal and concrete (both of which can be recycled at end-of-use), and the current major waste stream is fiberglass from the blades. While this is a concern that must be addressed, there is potential to address it through new technologies and new recycling methods, and the scale is minimal compared to the primary energy source it is replacing, coal.
Where does this leave us? I have some thoughts:
Let’s try not to be so “doomsday” about the waste issue of solar panels. Former GreenBiz staffer Lauren Phipps had a great conversation last year with Taylor Curtis from the National Renewable Energy Lab about panel recycling. Reading Taylor’s comments made it clear to me that this is a problem that we can overcome. As with anything, scale will bring efficiency and increased uptake.
It is always important to put challenges such as this in context. What is the old saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”? Sure, the solar panel (and wind turbine) waste problem may not be perfect, but let’s take solace in the fact that we are considering it (I’m sure the same can’t be said for early coal-fired power), and it is far superior to the waste challenge presented by the coal plants that it is replacing.
Let’s not get complacent. Keep pushing the industry to improve initial design as well as recycling options. Circular, renewable and perfect should be the end goals, but the climate crisis is too important to wait or to slow down because of a bunch of headline-based gaslighting that casts doubt on the righteousness of renewable energy technologies.
So, next time you read a headline about the evils of solid waste from renewable energy, remember to put it in context, read the article and turn the impending challenge into an opportunity.