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CNBC: 90% of ‘end-of-life’ solar panels end up in landfills – Wind turbines ‘end up being thrown away’ – ‘Renewable energy…will soon generate tons of waste’

  • As the Biden administration pushes for more wind power and solar energy, renewable energy industries will soon generate tons of waste.
  • A wind turbine is recyclable, from the steel tower to the composite blades, typically 170 feet long, but most ends up being thrown away, a waste total that will reach a cumulative mass of 2.2 million metric tons by 2050.
  • Currently, about 90% of end-of-life or defective solar panels also end up in landfills, largely because it costs far less to dump them than to recycle them.
  • “We have done a phenomenal job making solar efficient and cost-effective, but really have not done anything yet on making it circular and dealing with the end-of-life,” says Solarcycle CEO Suvi Sharma.

The growing importance of wind and solar energy to the U.S. power grid, and the rise of electric vehicles, are all key to the nation’s growing need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, lower carbon emissions and mitigate climate change.

But at the same time, these burgeoning renewable energy industries will soon generate tons of waste as millions of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, wind turbines and lithium-ion EV batteries reach the end of their respective lifecycles.

As the saying goes, though, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Anticipating the pileup of exhausted clean-energy components — and wanting to proactively avoid past sins committed by not responsibly cleaning up after decommissioned coal mines, oil wells and power plants — a number of innovative startups are striving to create a sustainable, and lucrative, circular economy to recover, recycle and reuse the core components of climate tech innovation.

Wind and solar energy combined to generate 13.6% of utility-scale electricity last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), and those numbers will undoubtedly rise as renewable energy continues to scale up. Some leading utilities across the nation are far ahead of that pace already.

Meanwhile, sales of all-electric vehicles rose to 5.8% of the total 13.8 million vehicles Americans purchased in 2022, up from 3.2% in 2021. And with the Environmental Protection Agency’s newly proposed tailpipe emissions limits and power plant rules, EV sales could capture a 67% market share by 2032 and more utilities be forced to accelerate their power generation transition.

Keeping solar panels out of landfills

The average lifespan of a solar panel is about 25 to 30 years, and there are more than 500 million already installed across the country, Sharma said, ranging from a dozen on a residential home’s rooftop to thousands in a commercial solar farm. With solar capacity now rising an average of 21% annually, tens of millions more panels will be going up — and coming down. Between 2030 and 2060, roughly 9.8 million metric tons of solar panel waste are expected to accumulate, according to a 2019 study published in Renewable Energy.

Currently, about 90% of end-of-life or defective solar panels end up in landfills, largely because it costs far less to dump them than to recycle them. “We see that gap closing over the next five to 10 years significantly,” Sharma said, “through a combination of recycling becoming more cost-effective and landfilling costs only increasing.”

Both the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provide tax credits and funding for domestic manufacturing of solar panels and components, as well as research into new solar technologies. Those provisions are intended to cut into China’s dominant position in the global solar panel supply chain, which exceeds 80% today, according to a recent report from the International Energy Agency.