Photo voltaic panel waste is just not the worst factor that’s ever occurred


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I subscribe to loads of newsletters and observe fairly a number of Google alerts on this position. It’s one in all my favourite components of the job. I subscribed to loads of newsletters in my final position too. The distinction now could be that I truly learn (most of) them.

If you subscribe to this quantity of newsletters and alerts, you might be sure to see loads of takes from of us like me (and actual journalists alike) about the identical subjects time and again. One story may say that recyclable single use cups are nice, whereas one other may argue they’re the worst. One story may laud progress towards compostable clothes, one other may say it’s a waste of effort.

There’s one subject the place practically each sustainability pundit appears to be in settlement, although: The problem of coping with photo voltaic panel waste. Every headline on this subject makes it appear as if photo voltaic panel waste is the worst factor that’s ever occurred…

I’m not right here to argue that we shouldn’t handle what to do with photo voltaic panels on the finish of their first helpful life, removed from it. I consider that we’d like innovation in photo voltaic panel restoration and recycling, in addition to vital analysis into designing panels for recyclability, refurbishment or remanufacturing from the outset. The identical could be mentioned (and the identical doomsday articles exist) for wind generators.

Some articles on this topic do yeoman’s work to handle the chance, each environmental and monetary, of cracking the code on end-of-first-use remedy of renewable power infrastructure, and they need to be applauded for doing so. What I don’t see fairly often addressed in these articles, although, is the waste drawback with our different types of power. That’s what I’m going to prod at a bit right here, nonetheless incompletely.

Let’s begin with the type of power being phased out most proper now by renewables…


If of us assume renewables have a poisonous waste drawback, wait till they meet photo voltaic and wind’s outdated soiled uncle. Coal-fired energy produces coal ash, and loads of it. In line with the US Environmental Safety Company, “Coal ash accommodates contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic. With out correct administration, these contaminants can pollute waterways, floor water, consuming water, and the air.” This coal ash is handled in a wide range of methods relying on the power’s permits, however the programs put in place to comprise coal ash fail, with two notable and up to date incidents in Kingston, Tennessee (2008) and Eden, North Carolina (2014). Not solely is coal ash poisonous, it is among the largest industrial waste streams within the U.S. at over 100 million tons per 12 months. To place that in context, the U.S. isn’t anticipated to hit 1 million tons of photo voltaic panel waste till 2030.

Pure fuel

What about coal’s clear cousin, pure fuel? Nicely, it’s a lot cleaner from a strong waste perspective, with little or no strong waste being created past any disposal of emissions management media and the decommissioning of gas-fired energy crops. Waste streams are related to exploration for, and manufacturing of, pure fuel. These embrace impacts to freshwater in the course of the unconventional manufacturing of pure fuel, a.okay.a. hydraulic fracturing.


Hazardous waste is clearly a difficulty with nuclear energy manufacturing, so I don’t assume we have to get into an excessive amount of element right here. Whereas the volumes of nuclear waste are fairly low (about 2,000 metric tons per 12 months), the implications of a launch are a lot bigger than these for different energy-producing applied sciences.   


One most important level on hydroelectric energy. Whereas waste is just not of specific significance to hydro, different ecological concerns certainly are (land use implications, wildlife impacts and life-cycle GHG emissions). As these are troublesome to check apples-to-apples with waste, we’ll go away it at that for now.


The strong waste drawback for wind is just like that of photo voltaic. Wind generators usually have lifetimes on the order of 20 years, a lot of the weight of a turbine is steel and concrete (each of which could be recycled at end-of-use), and the present main waste stream is fiberglass from the blades. Whereas this can be a concern that should be addressed, there may be potential to handle it by way of new applied sciences and new recycling strategies, and the size is minimal in comparison with the first power supply it’s changing, coal.

The place does this go away us? I’ve some ideas:

  1. Let’s attempt to not be so “doomsday” in regards to the waste concern of photo voltaic panels. Former GreenBiz staffer Lauren Phipps had an ideal dialog final 12 months with Taylor Curtis from the Nationwide Renewable Power Lab about panel recycling. Studying Taylor’s feedback made it clear to me that this can be a drawback that we are able to overcome. As with something, scale will deliver effectivity and elevated uptake.
  2. It’s all the time vital to place challenges resembling this in context. What’s the outdated saying, “Don’t let the right be the enemy of the great”? Positive, the photo voltaic panel (and wind turbine) waste drawback might not be good, however let’s take solace in the truth that we’re contemplating it (I’m positive the identical can’t be mentioned for early coal-fired energy), and it’s far superior to the waste problem introduced by the coal crops that it’s changing.
  3. Let’s not get complacent. Maintain pushing the business to enhance preliminary design in addition to recycling choices. Round, renewable and excellent needs to be the tip objectives, however the local weather disaster is just too vital to attend or to decelerate due to a bunch of headline-based gaslighting that casts doubt on the righteousness of renewable power applied sciences.

So, subsequent time you learn a headline in regards to the evils of strong waste from renewable power, keep in mind to place it in context, learn the article and switch the upcoming problem into a chance.



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