CBS News published a story, titled “A black eye for green energy? Renewable energy growth brings mounting waste challenge,” detailing the fact that it is difficult, if not impossible, to recycle many of the components of wind and solar projects. This is true. Those who designed wind turbines and solar panels, the developers erecting them, and the federal and state governments pushing their use, largely failed to consider how to manage the large amounts of waste produced when turbines and panels fail prematurely or are decommissioned and replaced at the end of their useful lives. This already amounts to millions of pounds of waste annually.
CBS News described the present management of solar panel and wind turbine disposal thusly:
[A]s the [wind and solar] industry expands, a new problem emerges: what to do with the mounting waste generated by worn-out solar panels and wind turbine blades.
More than 90 percent of discarded solar panels end up in landfills. By 2030, the retired panels are estimated to cover an area equivalent to about 3,000 football fields.
The wind industry is also producing waste — creating an estimated 47 million tons of blade waste annually by 2050.
Although CBS suggests the waste problem is one for the future, problems with disposing of the hundreds of turbines and thousands of panels that need replacing annually, are already evident.
Wind turbine blades are difficult if not impossible to recycle. They are composites, consisting of what one publication referred to as “a toxic amalgam of unique composites, fiberglass, epoxy, polyvinyl chloride foam, polyethylene terephthalate foam, balsa wood, and polyurethane coatings.”
As such, as of 2020, decommissioned or broken wind turbine blades were already amounting to 50,000 tons of waste annually, an amount expected to grow drastically in the near future. Almost all of this waste is either being left standing to rot, being taken down and temporarily stored on site until sufficient landfill space is found, or being shipped to landfills. Yet landfill space is becoming scarce, and for economic and liability reasons, becoming scarcer all the time.
As reported on at Heartland Daily News, a separate tractor-trailer is needed to haul each blade to a landfill, and cutting them up requires powerful specialized equipment. With as many as 8,000 blades a year already being removed from service just in the United States, this amounts to 32,000 truckloads over the next four years—a number that will five times higher in just a few years. That’s a lot of carbon dioxide emitted in the turbine disposal process, emissions unaccounted for when the emissions profile of industrial wind facilities are compared to traditional power plants.
Some wind energy companies have taken to cutting the blades into shorter sections before sending them to landfills, because most landfills lack cutting tools. Today’s turbine blades are 20 percent longer and their towers up to 200 feet taller than most of those currently being landfilled.
Turbine disposal costs are upwards of $400,000 apiece, amounting to $24 billion to dispose of the 60,000 turbines currently in use in the U.S. The cost and the toll on existing landfills will rise as more, longer, heavier blades reach their end of life.
That’s if landfills will take them. Because of the potentially toxic elements in them and the huge amount of space they take up, only certified landfills accept decommissioned wind turbine parts. Yet, municipalities running certified landfills are increasingly rejecting wind turbine blades, even when they can charge double the amount per ton for accepting turbines, because they take up tremendous amounts of space, must be crushed at considerable expense, and take hundreds of years to break down.
As these problems have become more evident, as CBS discussed, companies are seeking different ways to dispose of turbine blades. With proper environmental protocols in place, used blades can be shredded and burned in kilns or power plants. This, however, releases air toxins and carbon dioxide. Currently the emissions from burning decommissioned wind turbine blades is small, but if the practice becomes more widespread, such emissions could become considerable.
It is also difficult to dispose of or recycle decommissioned solar panels. Currently, most used solar panels are either shipped to landfills or shipped for use overseas.
Solar panels are typically removed when the energy they produce declines significantly, usually between 20 and 30 years, if they have not been damaged or become non-functional previously. Such panels still produce energy, just significantly less than required for homeowners, businesses, and utilities to benefit from them. Some companies have found a growing market for used, substandard solar panels over seas in developing countries. However, because the panels’ useful lives do come to an end eventually, over the long term, this just shifts the waste disposal problem from the United States, to poorer nations.
Solar panels contain a mixture of components, some of which can be recycled, some of which can’t. Although many of the material in solar panels are valuable and recyclable, like glass, copper, silver, and various critical materials, because of the way the panels are composed, it is expensive to do so. In addition, solar panels contain toxic metals like lead, cadmium, and selenium. The blending of these recyclable and toxic elements makes teasing the small amount of the valuable materials out from the toxic ones prohibitively expensive.
“The reason you do not see more companies doing solar panel recycling is because the economics don’t make sense,” AJ Orben, vice president at We Recycle Solar, told GreenBiz. “It costs more to break a panel down and recover the raw materials than what the raw materials themselves are worth.”
As CBS News notes, government incentives and subsidies are being used to encourage solar panel recycling but at the present they haven’t closed the gap between what it cost to capture the recyclable material from the panels and their value. As such, less than one in 10 solar panels are recycled, with thousands of panels each year piling up in landfills, potentially leaching toxic heavy metals into the soil and groundwater.
The waste disposal problem for green energy technology is big and growing bigger. CBS News did the public a service by bringing this problem to light. As CBS wrote, the waste “challenge” is, “black eye,” for the green energy industry. Maybe next CBS will take on the challenge of recycling or disposal of electric vehicle battery packs.
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is the Director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.
In addition to directing The Heartland Institute’s Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy, Burett puts Environment & Climate News together, is the editor of Heartland’s Climate Change Weekly email, and the host of the Environment & Climate News Podcast.