By Amy Joi O’Donoghue
Wind farms and massive arrays of solar panels are cropping up across public and private landscapes both in the United States and abroad as users increasingly turn to “green energy” as their preferred flavor of electricity.
President Joe Biden, in fact, has directed the Interior Department to identify suitable places to host 20 gigawatts of new energy from sun, wind or geothermal resources by 2024 as part of a sweeping effort to move away from a carbon-based economy and electrical grid.
But how green is green?
Although countries are feverishly looking to install wind and solar farms to wean themselves off carbon-based, or so-called “dirty” energy, 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.
A briefing paper released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency predicts these startling global numbers for countries by 2050 just for solar waste:
- United States, 10 million tons.
- Germany, 3 million tons.
- China, 20 million tons.
- Japan, 7.5 million tons.
- India, 7.5 million tons.
Solar arrays have a life cycle of about 30 years, but the rapid adoption of solar in the United States and elsewhere has the problem of disposal creeping up in the rearview mirror — faster rather than later.
Green waste growth
In 2019, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the United States surpassed 2 million solar installations, just three years after it hit the milestone of 1 million installations.
The paper points out that 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.
Research underscores there are few incentives to recycle solar panels, as the cost of recovering the materials outweighs the costs of extracting what can be recycled — even without adding in transportation expenses.
The issue foreshadows the potential for the creation of a new class of hazardous waste sites under EPA Superfund designations as clean energy operators walk away from a large volume of materials that contaminate the soil and groundwater.
“It is foreseeable that the same kind of practices could occur with respect to (solar) panels in the absence of very effective programs for the collecting and recycling of PV panels available where PV panels are used,” the paper said.
The problem is not limited to large-scale solar utility farms but also to individual households and businesses that over the years have opted to install rooftop solar panels.
“More homeowners are installing solar panels as they have become cheaper, but those modules have less potential for recycling and recovery of materials due to their smaller size and lower number of panels versus commercial installation,” the paper noted.
The disposal of hazardous waste is regulated and monitored under Utah law, and landfill operators are trained on what material to look for that poses potential threats to the environment, said Brian Speer, solid waste manager for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
“Certainly these wastes are on our radar, but we are currently not seeing a demand to dispose of these wastes in any significant quantity,” he said.
That specter of demand is just a couple decades away as some of the early photovoltaic modules reach their end of life and homeowners, businesses and utility-scale operators face the prospect of safe disposal.
Speer said he is hopeful that the research being done by the U.S. Department of Energy and the EPA will provide an environmentally safe pathway for proper disposal.
“The capacity issue is one we hope is answered before the need arrives,” he said.
Kate Bowman, Utah Clean Energy’s renewable energy program manager, said there needs to be more research on how to safely recycle high-value materials such as cobalt and lithium.
The research, she added, will help address the waste problem.
The solar industry is looking to use fewer precious metals and other elements in the manufacturing process, decreasing the amount of silver in panels by 70% since 2010.
While using less silver is economically attractive up front and less labor intensive, it makes recycling the solar panels less attractive. The cost decrease in the panels themselves has the potential to backfire, the paper warns, and some of these newer panels are more fragile and likely to break, hastening the need for their disposal.
The report notes that “not much has been done in the United States to address the PV waste issue,” and most novel policies in this arena are emerging from Europe.
In 2017, the state of Washington became the first in the nation to require recycling for these systems and to mandate a “take back” program for manufacturers at no cost to the homeowner. Utah, at this point, does not have such a mandate and it remains to be seen how effective the law will be. The EPA notes that such a law still does not address issue of where the waste winds up.
Tilting at windmills
Wind power also is taking off as a clean energy resource, but the EPA notes that windmills are the least energy producing and most physically difficult renewable energy waste stream to address.
The sheer size of the windmills and the difficulty of disposing of them at recycling stations led the agency to conclude that each new wind farm is a “towering promise of future wreckage.”
While there is a market for second-hand windmills in Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, the tactic of shifting used windmill components to other countries simply delays the waste disposal problem and puts it on the shoulders of countries less equipped to deal with the challenge, it noted.
Like coal mining or other natural resource extraction, certain entities in Utah and elsewhere have addressed the afterlife issues of wind and solar farms by requiring environmental remediation or the posting of a reclamation bond to ensure proper cleanup and disposal.
“This is something we have thought a lot about,” said Keli Beard, general counsel with the Utah School and Institutional Trust Land Administration.
The first wind project in Utah came online in Milford in 2009 and eventually expanded to a 306-megawatt facility in Beaver County.
Nine of the windmills are on school trust lands, with each of them accompanied by a reclamation bond required by the agency, Beard said.
For any of the renewable energy projects located on school trust lands, Beard said there is a requirement that the reclamation plan be conducted by an independent engineer to assure it appropriately repairs the landscape.
The contractural arrangement provides for operating agreements that can be extended over the life of the project, which Beard says gives them as the landowner a way to invoke new requirements as disposal technology advances.
“Often in that operations period there is an option to renew or extend the agreement,” she said. “We are concerned that at the end of life of these projects, the cost of recycling and removing them will be far more than the value of what is left on the land.”
Beaver County enacted environmental assessment and disposal requirements for solar farms within its boundaries.
Kyle Blackner, zoning administrator, said when a project is decommissioned the plant’s components and associated infrastructure would have to be removed to a depth of 36 inches from the site.
“Milford Solar (or the current owner) would salvage economically recoverable materials, and unsalvageable materials would be recycled/disposed of at a location authorized by Beaver County.”
The Bureau of Land Management, too, requires bonds sufficient to reclaim the land to its original state. But these reclamation requirements still don’t address the looming problem of what happens to these materials at disposal, and they don’t guarantee the operator won’t simply forfeit the bond and walk away regardless.
Electric vehicles bring own challenges
As state fleets and the general public increasingly embrace electric vehicles, that “clean” move comes with its own environmental challenges.
The value of the materials recycled from lithium ion batteries is only about a third of the cost of the recycling operation — and the expense of extracting old lithium is about five times the cost of mining for lithium, according to the Institute for Energy Research.
There is some innovation playing out, however, with Japan’s Nissan repurposing batteries to power streetlights. In the United States, General Motors is backing up its data center in Michigan with used Chevy Volt batteries.
The EPA notes, however, that these sort of “adaptive reuses” still only delay the time for final disposal of the batteries and the need to deal with materials in the batteries that can cause fires or leach hazardous chemicals.
On the wind power front, GE announced last year it had reached a multiyear agreement with Veolia North America to launch the United States’ first wind blade recycling program, according to an article in Utility Dive.
Nearly 90 % of the blade material, consisting of fiberglass, would be repurposed for cement production, cutting carbon dioxide emissions from that source by 27%.
With the release of its paper, the EPA is calling on researchers, states, industry and other federal agencies to ensure green waste is sustainable from end to end and that gaps in renewable energy waste management are addressed.
“While consumers may purchase renewable energy or renewable energy-based products with good intentions, that does not prevent the unintended adverse environmental consequences of these products,” it said.