Updated: Apr 8
The use of wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars is spreading. But what happens when they reach the end of their lives?
The typical life span of a wind turbine is 20 years.
Solar panels typically last 25 to 30 years.
An average car battery life is three to five years.
All energy-producing technologies produce waste that should be managed responsibly. But manufacturers of renewable energy technologies often do not consider themselves accountable for recycling their products. “It’s like making a plane that is not designed to land."
Turbines, panels and batteries need resources such as copper, lithium, and a host of other rare earths, the quantities of which are limited. They are often mined in developing countries or countries with geopolitical complications. Few countries will have complete energy independence. China has the world’s largest reserves of rare earth minerals and the US is now paying companies to shop elsewhere.
Some "renewable" components are toxic and must be disposed of with care. Some are precious and should be recycled, but recycling processes can be complicated, expensive and energy consuming. So, toxic or valuable materials often just end up in landfills.
Wind turbine blades can be huge - some are 60 meters long - and the blades are getting even longer. Transporting them even to recycling stations is a problem. There is a market for second-hand windmills in Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, but shifting used windmill components to other countries simply moves the waste disposal problem to those countries.
Solar panel waste is expected to grow exponentially in the next decade. Panels recently installed will need disposal in the 2050 timeframe. But there are few incentives to recycle solar panels, as the cost of recovering the materials outweighs the costs of extracting what can be recycled.
Waste batteries from electric vehicles will cumulatively weigh roughly 600,000 metric tons by 2025.
The burning fossil fuels of course produces Greenhouse gasses that represent the world’s most abundant and destructive waste.
Nuclear fuel is very energy dense, so very little of it is required relative to other fuels. Only a small volume of nuclear waste (~3% of the total) is long-lived and highly radioactive.
Unlike other industrial toxic wastes, the principal hazard associated with this waste – radioactivity – diminishes with time.
The nuclear energy community has shown that it can safely store, transport, and dispose of the waste. Perhaps renewable technology producers should take a page from the nuclear community’s book when it comes to dealing with waste.