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We need to talk about waste

Tackling renewable energy’s dirty secret

As older renewable energy installations come to the end of their useful life, countries urgently need to work out what to do with the waste.

In the excitement about the role of renewable energy in helping countries tackle climate change, two important challenges are often overlooked.

The energy transition aims for a sustainable economy based on renewable, or low-carbon power. But making the necessary wind turbines, solar panels, electric car batteries, and other green products requires vast amounts of resources. Extracting them creates emissions of their own, as well as causing environmental degradation and, in many instances, social problems.

Equally problematic is the challenge of recycling, storing and disposing of the waste created when products come to the end of their useful life.

Since most renewable installations are relatively new, waste has been largely limited to outdated or damaged products. However, with older wind and solar farms starting to reach the end of their useful life, questions are being asked about what will happen to the waste, especially since the amount currently being generated will be dwarfed by what lies ahead.

In most countries, blades are usually cut down and buried in landfill sites. The problem is that in the US alone around 8,000 blades are due to be removed in each of the next four years. According to one report, the country will have more than 720,000 tonnes of blades to dispose of over the next 20 years.1

The issues associated with dumping turbine blades in landfill sites may seem trivial compared with those associated with burning fossil fuels and dealing with nuclear waste. Nevertheless, the public image of an industry keen to promote its environmental credentials threatens to be tarnished, especially if the mass disposal of blades overwhelms existing landfill capacities. The race is on to find a better solution.

Solar’s record growth

Although the world may have been building wind farms at a rapid rate, the sector’s growth pales in comparison with that of solar energy. According to the International Energy Agency, solar output grew more than any other source of energy for the first time in history in 2016.2

Solar Power Europe believes global installed capacity will more than double by the end of 2025, and under optimal conditions could be three times larger than today. Some countries look set for even quicker growth. Wood Mackenzie, the energy research and consultancy group, reckons the size of the US solar fleet will more than quadruple by 2030.3

The rapid growth in solar power generation comes with an important caveat

However, while the rapid growth in solar power generation is welcome from the perspective of tackling climate change, it comes with an important caveat. In an industry where circular solutions such as recycling remain woefully inadequate, the sheer volume of discarded panels looks set to become a key issue.

Solar uses more raw materials per unit of electricity generated than all other energy sources, in most cases by a significant margin. A report published by the International Energy Agency Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme and International Renewable Energy Agency in 2016 said up to eight million tonnes of waste were expected to have accumulated by 2030, rising to as much as 78 million tonnes by 2050.4

The issue of solar waste is not only one of volume. Solar panels contain toxic metals like lead, which can damage the nervous system, as well as cadmium, a known carcinogen. Both are known to leach out of existing e-waste dumps into drinking water supplies.

Nimbyism and nuclear

Nowhere is the waste challenge more evident than in nuclear energy. Providing about ten per cent of the world’s electricity from around 445 reactors, it is the second largest source of low-carbon power.

The world has yet to build a single permanent disposal facility

More than sixty years after the first commercial power plants began operating, the world has yet to build a single permanent disposal facility.

For now, waste accumulates mainly where it is generated – at the power plants and processing facilities. Some of it has been sitting in interim storage for decades.

While it remains to be seen how important a role it will play in helping the world combat climate change, the nuclear industry’s inability to find a permanent home for its waste has been a long-standing impediment to more widespread adoption of the technology.

Darryl Murphy, managing director of infrastructure at Aviva Investors, says nuclear’s waste problem provides a salutary lesson to investors in renewables why they need to confront the issue head on, even if the problem of dealing with waste from wind and solar pale in comparison.

Companies providing support services or new technologies to the green energy sector are well placed to grow rapidly over time

Murphy believes this means companies providing support services or new technologies to the green energy sector are well placed to grow rapidly over time. That should in turn provide attractive investment opportunities once the regulatory landscape becomes clearer.

While there’s no denying the important contribution of renewables to combatting climate change, for waste to be dealt with in an environmentally friendly way, people need to have confidence governments are taking the issue seriously by mandating recycling.

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