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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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The Renewable Energy Boom Has a Waste Problem

  • Renewable energy waste is a growing problem due to the increasing use of solar panels and wind turbines.
  • Improper disposal of renewable energy equipment can lead to environmental and health problems.
  • Governments need to establish clear standards and regulations for energy waste disposal to ensure that it is done safely and responsibly.

As the global renewable energy capacity increases, so does the amount of waste from end-of-life equipment from solar, wind and other renewable energy activities. If we don’t address this problem soon it could become a whole new threat to the environment and human health. While a transition away from fossil fuels to alternative green energy sources is helping the world to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change, it is important to consider the implications that new energy activities may have on the environment. 

Solar panels and wind turbines have a limited lifespan and need to be disposed of appropriately once they reach this point. While some components can be recycled and reused, much of the old equipment ends up in landfills due to the lack of infrastructure in place to manage the materials suitably. Renewable energy equipment, such as solar panels, contains components that can be harmful to humans, such as lead and cadmium, as well as other materials, like glass, aluminum, and silicon, which can be harmful to the environment if disposed of improperly. 

One way that out-of-use equipment can be managed is through the creation of standards, such as the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive from the European Union, which provides guidelines for the gathering, handling, recycling, and recovery of solar panels. The U.S. Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) also addresses the correct disposal of solar panels. However, many countries have yet to introduce clear standards for renewable energy equipment disposal, which has led to dangerous methods of disposal. 

Several countries around the globe are rapidly increasing their solar and wind energy capacity, which relies on the production and installation of millions of solar panels and turbines. Tens of millions of solar panels are being installed each year in the U.S. alone, and globally the figure is over a hundred million. Despite the accelerated pace of the rollout, there are few recycling facilities prepared to manage old equipment. 

Some countries are managing equipment disposal better than others. For example, France claims that 90 percent recycling efficiency is achieved in some of its flagship disposal facilities. However, others do not have mechanisms in place to even consider recycling old equipment. While it is important to put proper waste disposal mechanisms in place for the safety of people and the environment, it can also be a lucrative business. According to a study by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the cumulative value of materials that can be recycled from solar photovoltaic (PV) waste is estimated at $4 billion by 2040 and $8.8. billion by 2050. 

Supplies of many of the materials used to produce green energy equipment are finite, meaning it is important to recycle materials to reproduce equipment to continue to produce renewable energy. Jinlei Feng, a program officer at IRENA, explained, “By 2050, there will be more than 210 million tonnes of cumulative solar PV waste globally and more than three-quarters of that waste will be generated after 2040 and 40% in the last five years between 2045-2050. Feng added, “Annual solar PV waste generation will touch 10 million tonnes by 2040 and increase to 20 million tonnes by 2050.”

India is currently trying to navigate solar waste problem. Pavagada in the south of India is home to the world’s third-largest solar power plant, which holds 25 million panels across a 50 km2 park, with a capacity of 2,050MW. There are 11 other giant solar parks across the country, with plans to develop a further 39 across 12 states by 2026. However, with great solar ambitions comes significant waste. India is aiming for a solar output capacity of 280GW by 2030, of which 70.1GW is already installed. One study predicts that this will produce an accumulation of over 600,000 tonnes of solar waste by the end of the decade, which could increase 32-fold to over 19 million tonnes by 2050. 

Although there are protocols in place to manage the disposal of old equipment, which state that solar waste from the plants must be transferred to e-waste contractors, authorized by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), within a specified timeframe – typically 90 or 180 days – few abide by these rules. Most solar farms are in remote areas and must pay to transport old equipment to authorised contractors. Solar glass has no real value, meaning there is little incentive for waste contractors to collect and manage the equipment. This has led to the development of a network of informal operators – who dismantle, aggregate, transport and recycle panels. Instead of ensuring proper disposal methods are followed, many operators sell their waste equipment to informal buyers, meaning the materials cannot be recycled and repurposed, and many of the materials end up harming both people and the environment. 

To ensure that renewable energy equipment is disposed of appropriately, and recycled where possible, governments must establish clear standards and regulations for energy waste disposal. Further, they must ensure the mechanisms are in place and funding is available to guarantee proper disposal takes place. Without the necessary standards, green energy equipment could contribute to environmental and health problems in the coming decades. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com 


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Leave a comment
  • john tucker on April 25 2024 said:
    windmill blades are enormous and they do wear out after 15-20 years. Pretty darn soon now we are gong to have a huge problem figuring out what to do with them.....
    (maybe we will have to build a electricity generating plant that burns them......)

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