As we continue to transition toward a cleaner, more sustainable energy future, renewable energy sources like wind turbines and solar panels have become increasingly prominent. They have played a pivotal role in the plan to reduce carbon emissions and lessen our reliance on fossil fuels; however, one aspect of the renewable energy landscape that often gets less attention is the decommissioning dilemma. With the useful lifetime for solar panels and wind turbines at 20 – 30 years, many are about to reach that threshold. How do we responsibly retire and recycle these technologies when their life comes to an end?
According to studies by Cambridge University and the International Renewable Energy Agency, 43 million metric tons of wind turbine blades and 60 to 78 million metric tons of photovoltaic solar panels must be decommissioned by 2050.
Solar photovoltaic decommissioning typically entails equipment removal, followed by reuse, recycling, disposal of the photovoltaic modules and site rehabilitation or reuse. Wind farm decommissioning is more complicated, requiring site preparation, laydown of the blades, hub, and other wind turbine components, disassembling and cutting, then material reuse, recycling, and disposal, and site rehabilitation or reuse.
Although end-of-life management of renewable technologies could be an opportunity to obtain a return on the investment by utilizing their materials, only a limited number of end-of-life management processes are in place. In addition, the extent to which they meet utility sustainability, certification, and liability requirements varies.
Photovoltaic recycling options are emerging to recover some of the high-value materials, such as silver, copper, and silicon. But according to the U.S. Department of Energy, recycling prices are $15-45 per module, which is far greater than landfill prices which are $1-$5 per module. Thus, only 10% of PV panels are being recycled, based on a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
End-of-life management for wind farms is even more arduous and costly. The American Clean Power industry group estimates that 80-94% of a wind turbine can be recycled. This includes concrete, steel, and copper. However, the fiberglass composites that make up the blades and nacelles are exceedingly difficult to recycle. According to Enel, an Italian energy company, 90-100% of wind turbine waste is being sent to landfills.
In the United States, regulators are concerned – 36 states have pending legislation or regulations governing renewable decommissioning.
The decommissioning dilemma of renewables is a complex issue that cannot be ignored as we strive for a greener future. Responsible decommissioning is not only a moral obligation but also a strategic imperative if we are to maintain the environmental benefits of renewable energy.