Sustainability is about more than just finding renewable energy sources.
We’ve all heard the statistics: renewable energy is expected to overtake fossil fuels in terms of volume by 2026. Solar panels offset about 50 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced. The planet could temporarily reach 1.5 degrees of warming compared to pre-industrial levels sometime between 2022 and 2026 if we have a bad enough year.
Name a problem in recent years it can probably be attributed to climate change. Allergies worsening? Science says that climate change is making pollen counts spike. Nastier winters? Climate change contributes to extreme precipitation events. More wars occurring around the world? Yeah, that’s affected too.
And unlike with COVID-19, this isn’t a matter of getting used to a new normal. Things are going to get worse from here, all the tipping points acting as a line of dominoes. So it makes sense that people are doing as much as they can to mitigate the damage.
But we can’t ignore the damage we cause to the land in the process of cleaning up the air, either. Trading one poisoned environment for another isn’t going to do us any favors, and waste management in renewable energy is a problem that already exists.
Dead solar panels and wind turbines are already piling up, and they’ll only continue to do so.
So, what can we do?
Understanding Solar Panel Waste
Solar panels are a thing of 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 using boron, phosphorus, and gallium, but other metals can also be used depending on the manufacturer.
But it’s the panels themselves that are the real problem in terms of waste. Selenium, cadmium, tellurium, and other minor metals are often used in their construction. Minor metals are the byproducts of processing more common metals like zinc, copper, and nickel. Some are known carcinogens, while others are plain toxic.
There are also concerns raised about the amount of lead used in soldering these panels, which can come to 14g per panel. With the number of panels entering the market each year, that’s a lot of future lead ending up in our overburdened waste processing facilities. And whether it hits a landfill, an incinerator, or the Pacific garbage patch, the result won’t be good.
It’s true that in general, manufacturers could stand to think about what sorts of waste their products will end up as a little bit more thoroughly. But in the case of renewable energy, it’s even more surprising that waste products aren’t one of the things that everyone thinks of first. We’re already trying to save the world here. We already know sustainability is complicated.
Why does it seem like people don’t want to talk about renewable energy waste in general?
The Politics of Solar Panel Waste
To be able to talk about solar panel waste honestly, you first have to be able to talk about solar panels honestly. To be able to talk about solar panels, you have to be able to talk about climate change without getting laughed out of the room.
When one side of the political spectrum thinks climate change is a leftist conspiracy hoax meant to turn their children into gay Marxists: talking about the situation becomes a problem.
It’s impossible to talk about any problem with renewable energy without causing the right-wing media to jump on it and point to it as a reason that all renewable energy is bad. We live in a world where the fact of modern life can be outright ignored by nearly half the US Senate and two-thirds of the Supreme Court. Climate change is deeply politically inconvenient for the right.
But what’s worse is how economists talk about it. No matter what station you go to, there’s always at least one pundit that will talk about how expensive it would be to implement the necessary changes to slow things down. Reasonable centrists far and wide will dig their heels in for the status quo and insist that all that’s needed is innovation.
Except we’ve already innovated. Renewable energy is already here to stay. Those who have accepted the realities of this new world have already moved on to talking about logistical problems and how to tackle them. But by talking about them, we bump into the unavoidable conversations about how if it’s such a problem, we shouldn’t bother.
There are reasons for climate anxiety becoming such a problem in recent years. It’s not that things are bad. It’s that things are bad, and no one wants to so much as acknowledge them. Even on a basic level, it seems like no one in power wants to budge even a fraction of an inch.
Still, that doesn’t mean that 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’s hard to understand how large a single blade for a wind turbine is unless you’ve 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 – this is frankly obnoxious to ship anywhere. A whole convoy of trucks can be loaded with nothing but blades and only be enough to make a few turbines.
And since the whole thing is about as sturdy (and flammable) as expensive paper mache, 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 to keep it from breaking, and then it breaks anyway because wind turbines are monstrous, delicate wonders of modern engineering.
When a turbine breaks, it has to be dismantled and then shipped off to be disposed of safely. All the effort in dismantling and shipping it out – on top of the nuances of its construction–means that few people even bother to think of recycling. But this is something that’s mainly a problem for big companies, not regular people.
Hydroelectric power is considered ideal, in terms of waste, as it generates no waste products and lasts as long as the water source does. But it’s massively dependent on location, and in some cases, the water sources are running out too. And geothermal has the same problem of being location-dependent while producing tons of solid waste.
So, what’s left? Nuclear? Proponents say it’s clean and while it technically is, radioactive waste and the risk of a meltdown is a political snarl waiting to happen. Cold fusion? Still in the experimental stages. Biomass? We’re already starting to see soil degradation and environmental damage from excessive runoff due to the main crops responsible for it.
This leaves us with solar energy and its byproducts. The panels, the batteries required to maintain power when the sun goes down, and the necessity of backup power are all grave concerns with solar power.
But the latter two are concerned with many different kinds of power, let alone renewables. Let’s stick to what we can tackle directly: the panels.
Solutions to Solar Panel Waste
Solar panels, like all electronics, lose efficiency as they age. Better ones will degrade more slowly, but in general, they age about as well as one can expect given that their job is to bake endlessly in the sun.
A surge in production now means that in about 25 to 30 years, we’re going to see an increase in solar panel waste. Thankfully, this gives us some time to work on the logistics of managing that waste. Solar panels don’t have to go straight into landfills, but the infrastructure to send them somewhere else has to exist – this is where solar panel recycling comes in.
Solar panel recycling is both a good idea economically and a good idea environmentally. The additional labor required to recycle old solar panels would create jobs, as would supply the infrastructure needed to get those panels to processing. Recovering raw materials from existing panels is also far cleaner and cheaper than digging them out of the ground.
New shipping lanes will have to be made solely for the recycling of renewable energy waste. Those shipping lanes, creating jobs in themselves, can then bring those recycling centers to economically depressed areas, leading to new jobs in those places. Whole regions could see dynamic and demographic shifts around these specialized recycling centers.
And if they were funded at the state or federal level, it would also mean that the revenue they generated could go into local and state governments directly. This would provide an additional incentive to build these facilities even if local pressures led to higher-income residents not wanting recycling centers in their backyards.
Plus, as solar panel production evolves, so do the materials used in making those solar panels. Retiring old solar panels and recycling what’s still used to make new ones means that less savory materials can find new uses in other products, or be disposed of safely in isolation – this is a far safer solution to the problem of toxic e-waste than simply leaving old panels to rot.
Solar power is only a tiny fraction of power production overall, but it’s been growing by leaps and bounds. It’s also one of the few clean energy methods that can be implemented by average consumers and homeowners, which means solar waste is the 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 in solar panels, and they’ll pay for themselves fairly quickly. And even though these things can last as long as an average 30-year fixed mortgage, they still break eventually – average people will be the ones who need ways to handle that.
Average people are also the best equipped to advocate for the necessary changes to existing systems. So, it’s time to start banding together to fix things–before we have a crisis on our hands. There is no easy, catch-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, environmentally-friendly solutions don’t have to come at the cost of the economy all the time.