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Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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The Renewable Energy Waste Crisis Is Much Worse Than You Think

Waste disposal is not a popular topic of discussion in the media when it comes to renewable energy. Most of the coverage that solar and wind power is getting is strongly positive, with a focus on falling costs and rising efficiencies, as well as government plans for huge increases in installed capacity. Yet problems tend to lurk and wait to spring up. Now, the waste problem is springing up.

The International Renewable Energy Agency estimated in 2016 that unless we made significant changes to our treatment of solar panels, they could add up to 78 million tons of waste. The IRENA did not phrase it this way. It said that "recycling or repurposing solar PV panels at the end of their roughly 30-year lifetime can unlock an estimated stock of 78 million tonnes of raw materials and other valuable components globally by 2050."

The thing is that most panels do not live to see their 30th birthday, as an article in the Harvard Business Review from June pointed out. Solar waste, it said, is growing much faster than it should have, theoretically. This is because—another thing that you wouldn't see widely publicized—solar panels begin to lose efficiency from the moment they are installed. Meanwhile, new, more efficient panels are being developed. Even if the loss of efficiency is minuscule, at an average 0.5 percent, that figure is off the top of a typical efficiency rate of less than 30 percent (light-to-electricity conversion), so when offered a higher efficiency installation, many residential solar owners would consider it. The authors of the article, dubbed The Dark Side of Solar Power, point to the continuous improvements in solar panel technology as a reason for shorter actual lives for residential panels. They note that thanks to these improvements, both in cost and efficiency, consumers are a lot less likely to wait for their panels to turn 30 before they replace them. As a result, these early replacements could lead to 50 times more solar panel waste than IRENA had forecast.

It's worth noting that IRENA's forecast for the 78-million-ton opportunity from solar panel waste was made in 2016. A lot of things have changed over the past five years, including the rate of growth in solar panel installations. Unfortunately, what hasn't changed a lot is the economics of recycling solar panels.

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Grist reported recently that, according to researchers and recycling industry insiders, the cost of recycling a solar panel varies between $12 and $25. Meanwhile, the income from recovering certain elements from it comes in at about $3. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, recycling a solar panel costs between $20 and $30, while sending it to a landfill costs $1-2. And while the EU has put in place recycling mandates, the U.S. has no such mandates on a national level.

This massive difference in the cost of recycling versus the cost of dumping panels at landfills hints at an unpleasant truth that we are seeing in the EU already. There are recycling mandates there. The countries with the highest solar capacity pay the most for their electricity. This could, of course, be a coincidence, but that's quite unlikely: recycling costs money, and somebody has to foot that bill.

It is this bill that busts the myth of the cheap solar power that can fuel the whole world because the sun is there and shines for free. This is true. But once you add the costs of recycling to the total cost of solar energy, as the Harvard Business Review authors note, the cost of solar jumps four times.

The future, in the absence of quick action, looks bleak, according to the researchers who penned the HBR article.

"If we plot future installations according to a logistic growth curve capped at 700 GW by 2050 (NREL's estimated ceiling for the U.S. residential market) alongside the early replacement curve, we see the volume of waste surpassing that of new installations by the year 2031," Atalay Atasu, Serasu Duran, and Luk N. Van Wassenhove wrote.

"By 2035, discarded panels would outweigh new units sold by 2.56 times. In turn, this would catapult the LCOE (levelized cost of energy, a measure of the overall cost of an energy-producing asset over its lifetime) to four times the current projection. The economics of solar — so bright-seeming from the vantage point of 2021 — would darken quickly as the industry sinks under the weight of its own trash."

This sounds bad enough. It's even worse because there are only a handful of companies in the U.S. that recycle solar panels. But there is also wind turbine blade waste that is building up, and while, unlike solar panels, it does not contain toxic materials, the sheer size of the blades makes it a significant waste problem. Wind turbine blades are not recyclable yet, and tons of them are coming to landfills over the next 20 years; more than 720,000 tons in the U.S. alone.

"Because there are so few options for recycling wind turbine blades currently, the vast majority of those that are no longer able to be used are either stored in various places or taken to landfill," says Vicki Knott, CEO, and co-founder of CruxOCM.

"While the waste stream represents only a tiny portion of municipal solid waste, it's clearly not an ideal scenario. As wind turbines are being replaced, there's certainly a need for more creative recycling solutions for used blades," Knott also said.

It all sounds like a waste nightmare scenario, and it pretty much is.

While many residential solar panels will live out their lives, many others will not. But this is only the beginning of the problem. Recycling costs must be brought down and capacity built before the current wave of utility-scale solar farm additions subsides because anything done later would be playing catch-up with little chance to win.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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  • Steve Davidson on July 24 2021 said:
    While I largely agree that the solar panel waste is grossly underestimated, I'm confused that if panel disposal is $30, and most panels are about 300 watts, then you have about 10 cents per watt disposal cost. I think that is considerably less than the cost per watt of a new panel (maybe about 40 to 50 cents per watt). Harvard business review says disposal adds 4 times the cost to a solar panel system. Doesn't seem to add up or includes some other implied disposal costs not mentioned in the article.

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