Sustainability is not just about finding renewable energy sources.
We’ve all heard the statistics: renewable energy should go beyond fossil fuels in volume by 2026. Solar panels offset approximately 50 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity produced. The planet could temporarily reach 1.5 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels between 2022 and 2026 if we have a pretty bad year.
Name a problem in recent years that can probably be attributed to climate change. Aggravation of allergies? Science says climate change is increase pollen count. Harder winters? Climate change contributes to extreme precipitation events. No more wars in the world? Yeah, that too is touched.
And unlike COVID-19, it’s not about getting used to a new normal. Things will get worse from here, with all tipping points acting like a line of dominoes. So it makes sense that people are doing whatever they can to mitigate the damage.
But neither can we ignore the damage we cause to the earth by cleaning up the air. Trading one poisoned environment for another is not going to do us any favors, and waste management in renewables is a problem that already exists.
Dead solar panels and wind turbines are already piling up, and they will only continue to do so.
So what can we do?
Understanding Solar Panel Waste
Solar panels are a beauty in terms of design. Silicon dioxide cells protected by a sheet of glass produce electricity when exposed to sunlight. These cells are often made from boron, phosphorus and gallium, but other metals can also be used depending on the manufacturer.
But it is the panels themselves that pose the real problem in terms of waste. Selenium, cadmium, tellurium and other minor metals are often used in their construction. Minor metals are the by-products of processing more common metals like zinc, copper and nickel. Some are known carcinogens, while others are simply toxic.
There are also concerns about the amount of lead used to solder these panels, which can come to 14g per panel. With the number of panels entering the market every year, that’s a lot of future lead that ends up in our overburdened waste treatment facilities. And whether it reaches a landfill, an incinerator or the Pacific Garbage Patchthe result will not be good.
It’s true that in general, manufacturers could think a bit more about what kinds of waste their products will end up producing. But in the case of renewable energies, it is even more surprising that the waste are not one of the things everyone thinks of first. We are already trying to save the world here. We already know that sustainability is complicated.
Why does it seem that people don’t want to talk about the waste of renewables in general?
The Solar Panel Waste Policy
To be able to talk honestly about solar panel waste, you must first be able to talk honestly about solar panels. To be able to talk about solar panels, you have to be able to talk about climate change without laughing at the play.
When one side of the political spectrum thinks climate change is a leftist conspiratorial hoax designed to turn their children into gay Marxists: talking about the situation becomes a problem.
It’s impossible to talk about a problem with renewables without getting the right-wing media to jump on it and point to it as a reason why all renewables are bad. We live in a world where the fact of modern life can be outright ignored by nearly half of the US Senate and two-thirds of the Supreme Court. Climate change is deeply politically inconvenient for the right.
But the worst is the way economists talk about it. No matter which station you go to, there’s always at least one expert who will talk about the cost of implementing the changes needed to slow things down. Reasonable centrists from afar will stick to the status quo and insist that all that is needed is innovation.
Except that we have already innovated. Renewable energies are already here to stay. Those who have accepted the realities of this new world have already spoken of the logistical problems and how to solve them. But talking about them, we come across the inevitable conversations that if it’s such a problem, we shouldn’t bother.
There are reasons for climate anxiety become such a problem in recent years. It’s not that things are bad. It’s that things are bad, and no one even wants to acknowledge them. Even at a basic level, it seems that no one in power wants to move even a fraction of an inch.
Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t be honest here.
Being Honest About Renewable Energy Waste
To be fair, wind power is probably the worst when it comes to this whole waste situation.
It is difficult to understand the size of a single blade for a wind turbine unless you have seen one up close. A wind turbine is as long as a football field is wide, and at their widest points they can easily be taller than a person – it’s downright nasty to ship anywhere. A whole convoy of trucks can be loaded only with blades and only be enough to manufacture a few turbines.
And since the whole thing is about as strong (and flammable) as expensive papier-mâché, these things break a lot. Sometimes they catch fire. Sometimes the wind blows too hard and breaks a servo. Sometimes the wind blows too hard, the servo locks up to keep it from breaking, and then it breaks anyway because wind turbines are monstrous, delicate marvels of modern engineering.
When a turbine fails, it must be disassembled and then shipped for safe disposal. All the effort to tear it down and ship it – plus the nuances of its construction – means that few people even bother think about recycling. But this is something that is mainly a problem for big companies, not ordinary people.
Hydroelectric power is considered ideal, in terms of waste, because it generates no waste and lasts as long as the water source. But it depends massively on the location and in some cases the water sources are short too. And geothermal has the same problem of being location dependent while producing tons of solid waste.
So what’s left? Nuclear? Promoters say it’s clean and even if it is technically the case, radioactive waste and the risk of collapse is a political grunt waiting to happen. Cold fusion? Always in the experimental stages. Biomass? We are already beginning to see land degradation and environmental damage excessive runoff from the main crops responsible for it.
That leaves us with solar energy and its by-products. The panels, the batteries needed to maintain power when the sun goes down, and the need for backup power are all serious solar power concerns.
But the last two relate to many different types of energy, not to mention renewable energy. Let’s stick to what we can tackle directly: the panels.
Solutions to solar panel waste
Solar panels, like all electronic devices, lose efficiency as they age. The better ones degrade more slowly, but generally they age about as well as you’d expect given their job is to bake in the sun all the time.
An increase in production now means that in about 25 to 30 years we are going to see an increase in solar panel waste. Fortunately, this gives us some time to work on the logistics of managing this waste. Solar panels don’t have to go straight to landfills, but the infrastructure to send them elsewhere has to exist – it’s there solar panel recycling Between.
Recycling solar panels is both a good idea economically and a good idea ecologically. The additional labor needed to recycle old solar panels would create jobs, as would provide the infrastructure needed to get those panels to processing. Recovering raw materials from existing panels is also much cleaner and cheaper than digging them out of the ground.
New shipping lanes will have to be made just for the recycling of renewable energy waste. These shipping lanes, creating jobs in themselves, can then bring these recycling centers to economically disadvantaged areas, creating new jobs in those places. Entire regions could see dynamic and demographic changes around these specialized recycling centers.
And if they were funded at the state or federal level, that would also mean that the revenue they generated could go directly to local and state governments. This would provide additional incentive to build these facilities even if local pressures lead high-income residents to not want recycling centers in their backyards.
Moreover, as the production of solar panels evolves, the materials used in the manufacture of these solar panels also evolve. Removing old solar panels and recycling what’s still in use to make new ones means less tasty materials can find new uses in other products or be safely disposed of in isolation – that’s a much safer solution to the problem of toxic electronic waste than simply letting old panels rot.
Solar energy represents only a tiny part of global electricity production, but it has increased by giant step. It is also one of the few clean energy methods that can be implemented by average consumers and homeowners, which means that solar waste is most likely to matter to people.
You can’t build a wind turbine in your backyard and power your house, but you can cover your roof, garage, or carport with solar panels, and they’ll pay for themselves pretty quickly. And even though these things can last as long as an average 30-year fixed mortgage, they always break eventually – average people will be the ones who need the means to manage this.
Ordinary people are also best equipped to advocate for necessary changes to existing systems. So it’s time to start banding together to make things right, before we have a crisis on our hands. There’s no easy, one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of renewable energy waste in general, but implementing solar panel recycling now could make a dent in the problem.
Remember that environmentally friendly solutions don’t always have to come at the expense of the economy.