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A Renewable Energy Waste Crisis Is Looming

It turns out that the falling costs of solar panels is a double-edged sword for the environment. As photovoltaic technology becomes more affordable and therefore more widespread, some critics are becoming more and more worried about the growing threat of all the trash that those panels will eventually turn into.  While renewable resources are greatly reducing many forms of waste associated with the fossil fuel industry, clean energy infrastructure contains its own fair share of harmful materials that will require special and costly disposal methods. “Few countries, operators and the industry itself have yet to fully tackle the long-term consequences of how to dispose of these systems, which have their own environmental hazards like toxic metals, oil, fiberglass and other material,” Deseret News reports. 

Ironically, however, as the renewable industry has worked to use fewer precious metals and other elements and rare earth minerals in the manufacturing of infrastructure such as solar panels, they are simultaneously disincentivizing the eventual recycling of those apparatuses. More cheaply made solar panels tend to be more fragile and break down more quickly, creating more waste. 

And then there is the fact that we can’t necessarily count on the companies getting rich off of solar and wind to do the right thing for the environment. Many of the industry leaders cleaning up the energy sector aren’t environmentalists in the slightest--they just know an untapped market and a smart fiscal move when they see it. Individuals who own solar panels will likely be part of the issue as well unless recycling is made accessible, affordable, and properly incentivized for the average consumer. 

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has projected that by 2050, the world is going to have a whole lot of photovoltaic waste on its hands; just the United States will have 10 tons, while China will have double that. “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.”

Most solar panels have a lifespan of about 30 years, but we are already seeing solar panel waste outstrip recycling capacity. “The growth of solar waste is already straining recycling and disposal capabilities, with some panels improperly ending up in municipal landfills or stacking up in warehouses while the wait continues for more inexpensive routes to recycling,” Deseret News reports. 

Despite these worrying trends, there is plenty of cause for hope that by 2050 there will be much better infrastructure to recycle the growing amount of renewable energy waste. While the EPA’s new paper raises extremely important concerns about the potential negative environmental externalities of the renewable energy industry, it also shows that both scientists and policymakers are well aware of the issues and of what needs to be done to address them. Reports that renewables will be no better for the world than fossil fuels can easily be dismissed as alarmist and Malthusian. 

While renewable energies have their environmental downsides, however, they remain an absolute necessity in the global battle against catastrophic climate change. We do not have the luxury of time to fully develop a 100% sustainable life cycle for clean energy infrastructure from cradle to grave before we rush headlong into increasing installation. We’re on a very short deadline to save the planet from certain armageddon, and uncertain armageddon will have to be next. It’s absolutely essential to begin an earnest attempt to turn the entire energy industry into a circular economy. We’re not there yet. But hopefully, with some serious R&D, we’ll be a lot closer by the time all of today’s spent solar panels start piling up in 2050.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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