Even as studies show waste from solar and wind power generation pales in comparison to coal, some companies have started upcycling discarded material from the first generation of wind turbines now being retired.
“Solar waste in 2050 will be very small compared to other waste flows,” writes data researcher Hannah Ritchie in her Substack newsletter, Sustainability by the Numbers, citing commentary published in the journal Nature Physics. “Between 2016 and 2050, solar waste generation would amount to 54 to 160 million tonnes: less than one-tenth of e-waste streams, and at least 99.6% less than coal ash and municipal waste.”
- Concise headlines. Original content. Timely news and views from a select group of opinion leaders. Special extras.
- Everything you need, nothing you don’t.
- The Weekender: The climate news you need.
This context is important, Ritchie says, given growing misinformation about mountains of discarded solar panels past their 25- to 30-year lifespan. Observers must understand that “moving from coal to low-carbon energy will reduce waste; not increase it.”
She adds that “people often share pictures of piles of used turbine blades or panels. But they don’t show massive heaps of coal ash that are generated elsewhere.”
In the Nature Physics commentary that Ritchie cites, authors say “unsubstantiated claims” about solar module toxicity and waste are slowing down deployment. They illustrate in decreasing order of mass the tonnage of waste expected in 2050: municipal waste at 70,350 and coal ash at 45,550 million tonnes, followed by plastic waste, e-waste from electronic devices, oily sludge, and finally photovoltaic module waste at between 54 and 160 million tonnes. That’s still a lot of material, but Ritchie says it makes PV module waste “at least 99.6% less than coal ash and municipal waste.”
Following up on the raw numbers, Ritchie calculates the amount of waste generated per megawatt-hour of electricity generation. She concludes that coal generates 50 times as much waste per MWh as solar, more than 500 times as much as wind, and more than 2,700 times as much as nuclear generation. Moreover, the bulk of waste from coal is in the form of highly toxic coal ash, while solar and wind waste consists mainly of panels and turbine blades. Ritchie’s comparison does not include waste from oil or gas, but a private briefing from a senior executive with the Alberta Energy Regulator covered some of that ground several years ago.
Ritchie’s next step was to look at the waste produced from a single average United Kingdom resident’s electricity consumption over 25 years. “Imagine that I got all of my electricity from solar PV over the next 25 years. Or wind, or coal, or nuclear,” writes Ritchie. “That’s unrealistic because we’ll have a range of sources in the electricity mix, but it’s a good stress-test of how the different technologies stack up.” In that scenario, Ritchie said she would generate 10 tonnes of coal ash, 201 kilograms of end-of-life solar PV modules, 19 kilograms of wind turbine blades, or four kilograms of nuclear waste.”
And coal also produces waste that is more toxic than leftover solar or wind components.
But that doesn’t mean there will be no problems dealing with solar and wind waste. As the first wave of installations near the end of their operating lives, concerted efforts will be needed to process and recycle those materials.
Some 85% of turbine components—like the steel tower, copper wire, and gearing—are already recyclable, but the turbine blades are not. As turbine manufacturers work towards making recyclable blades, some start-ups are finding ways to repurpose them as new products, reports Bloomberg News.
Ohio-based Canvus has been using blades to make products like outdoor benches and planters. “We give this material a second life,” said Parker Kowalski, the company’s co-founder and managing director.
In Ireland, BladeBridge uses turbine blades to make bridges, while in Denmark, the Port of Aalborg uses them as bike shelters.