One of the biggest and loudest arguments against expanding renewable energy is what to do with wind turbine blades and solar panels when they reach the end of their useful life.
Many people are familiar with the two 1.68 MW wind turbines that sit on the hill outside of Morris, but in the US alone there are more than 70,000 wind turbines currently in service. This creates a major problem when blades need to be replaced. Not only are these blades big, but they also must be strong enough to hold up to spinning in the wind in a variety of conditions. The blades themselves are mostly made of fiberglass and epoxy with some wood components as well. One company is Missouri is trying to tackle this issue. Veolia takes used wind turbine blades, cuts them down to smaller pieces and shreds them using an industrial shredder. Then the turbine blade shreds can be used in a variety of ways. One of Veolia’s customers is a cement company that fuels their plant with the shavings instead of coal, cutting the plant’s operating emissions by 27%. The cement company is also able to mix the shavings into their cement product reducing the amount of virgin materials needed. And in Europe, used blades have found their way into playgrounds and as public art installations.
Solar panels on the other hand are a bit more complex. The panels are mainly composed of glass and aluminum, two highly recyclable materials. Additionally, most panel manufacturers claim a lifespan of 20-30 years for panels, however this is a misleading figure. After a solar panel has been installed for 30 years it will no longer be as efficient at converting sunlight to electrical energy then when it was installed. However, that doesn’t mean that the panels are useless. In many instances the panels may still have 70-80% of their original nameplate generation capacity. This oftentimes means that when panels are replacing, they are being replaced due to advances in technology rather than the panels themselves no longer working. This creates the opportunity for a used solar panel market where consumers could purchase 10-year-old solar panels for their home, receive the benefits of solar while reducing the initial capital needed to make the switch. A company in Arizona, aptly names We Recycle Solar, recycles over 7500 panels per day and reclaims glass, aluminum, and copper from the panels and ensures that any trace hazardous materials are dealt with in an environmentally sound manner.
However, the waste from renewable energy that still gets landfilled represents a small portion of the municipal solid waste that is landfilled in the US every day. In a report from CBS news, the University of Cambridge estimates the world will deal with 47 million tons of waste from the wind industry each year. However, it is important to put this into context. The world produced about 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste (not including construction/demolition waste) in 2018. By comparing this number to the expected amount of wind turbine blade waste, we get around 2.3% of total waste would come from turbine blades being landfilled. And this doesn’t take into account the amount of GHG emissions that will be prevented by all of this wind and solar energy.
While no waste stream is perfectly circular, companies like Veolia and We Recycle Solar are working to add value to this waste stream by finding promising areas for re-use and recycling.
My work is funded through a grant from the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources. Learn more at https://www.legacy.mn.gov/environment-natural-resources-trust-fund