What about waste from renewable energies?

The increased use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power is necessary to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 as set by EU targets. At the same time, it has increasingly voluminous consequences: its waste. Here we take a closer look at its characteristics, its environmental impact and its management.

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A more circular and fossil fuel-free Europe

The extraction, production, consumption and disposal of products are largely responsible for the depletion of natural resources and climate change.

Faced with the throwaway production model, in 2019 the EU presented the European Green Pact, a package of measures that seeks to promote economic growth without compromising the environment, applying a production and consumption system where material flows are kept in circulation for as long as possible.

European strategies also envisage the EU becoming climate neutral by 2050, with renewable energies being one of the objectives that measure the progress of the energy transition .

To achieve climate neutrality, almost all fossil fuel consumption must be reduced and replaced by energy efficiency and renewable sources.

But it is also necessary to consider the dimension of waste from renewable sources , which will multiply in the long term as their use increases exponentially on a global scale . And with this new scenario, new doubts arise: Do we have the tools and procedures to take advantage of their components? Which of their materials can be reintegrated into the production chain? What growth is estimated for the coming years and what will happen to their waste?

On photovoltaic energy waste

In the coming years, it will be necessary to address the management of existing wind and photovoltaic plants at the end of their useful life.

The renewal of equipment, together with advances in efficiency, will result in the generation of a large amount of waste that, if not properly treated, will have a great impact on the environment.

We must consider that the waste derived from these installations are not exclusively the devices themselves but are diverse depending on the different phases of their installation and use:

  • Construction and demolition waste such as rubble, soil or construction materials.
  • Operating phase: maintenance waste such as oils, solvents, paints and varnishes, contaminated rags, non-hazardous waste such as plastic debris, WEEE, batteries, etc. Waste is also generated during the installation and maintenance of infrastructures, both due to breakage and malfunctions.
  • End-of-life: the most prominent waste, the solar panel itself, categorized by European and Spanish legislation as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE).

And not all energy sources have the same impact. The maintenance of a wind farm is usually more complex than that of a photovoltaic farm, as it involves a greater volume of waste. At present, wind turbine blades are disposed of in landfills at the end of their useful life, resulting in the loss of a huge amount of potential secondary raw materials.

Growth that exceeds forecasts

The photovoltaic expansion of recent years has exceeded forecasts. This will imply changes, in the medium and long term, in the waste stream generation scenario. Ecoasimelec 's data are illustrative: between 2018 and 2022 (up to September) more than 2,200 tons were collected but 1,000 of them last year alone. Moreover, expectations point to the possibility of exceeding 1,300 tons of PV panels collected in 2022 as a whole, placing it above those collected in the previous four years.

Furthermore, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), energy generation capacity from renewable sources will grow by 50% in five years, especially due to the installation of photovoltaic solar panels, which will absorb 60% of this increase compared to the 25% that will come from wind power systems.

This increase will have irrefutable benefits in terms of emissions reduction, but it leaves a footprint that we cannot ignore: the polluting trace of manufacturing, transportation and minimal recycling of solar panels.

In fact, if we consider only the equipment that will reach the end of its useful life in the next nine years, 8 million tons of waste will be generated.

This figure will increase tenfold by mid-century and will account for more than 10% of the world's total electronic waste, according to a study published in Nature energy. "Incorporating recoverable materials would generate savings of 12,617 million euros and would allow them to be used to produce 2 billion new modules with the capacity to generate 630 GW."

The case of California: panels on landfills

California has been a pioneer in promoting rooftop solar, creating the largest solar market in the United States: 1.3 million rooftops in 20 years.

Starting in 2006, subsidies were provided to incentivize the use of solar energy. The problem: they did not have a comprehensive plan to dispose of them. Now, the panels purchased are nearing the end of their life cycle (25 to 30 years) and many are already in landfills. many of them are already in landfills..

According to Sam Vanderhoof, a solar industry expert, it is estimated that only 1 in 10 panels is actually recycled and that only $2 to $4 in materials are recovered from each panel. Recycling a panel in the U.S. costs between $20 and $30, while sending it to a landfill costs between $1 and $2.

Waste and resources generated by solar photovoltaic panels

According to a study by Recyclia, in collaboration with the company Recyberica Ambiental, more than 88% of the materials contained in a photovoltaic panel are recoverable thanks to the recycling technology developed to date. Specifically, from each ton of photovoltaic panels with an average weight of 35Kg/unit it is possible to extract:

  • 750kg of glass and silicon-related materials
  • 120kg of metals (mostly aluminum from the metal frames and to a lesser extent copper from the wiring and iron)
  • 20kg of plastic.

In addition, many waste facilities simply collect selected materials such as aluminum frames and glass coverings, which make up more than 80% of the mass of a silicon panel. The remainder is usually incinerated, even though it contains elements such as silver, copper and silicon.

It is also surprising that 20% of the world's mined silver is currently found in installed photovoltaic panels.. Although by weight it is a minority component in the composition of the panel, it represents almost half of the cost of the materials used in its manufacture, so developing technologies for its recovery will have a positive impact on the overall energy transition.

In Spain, since February 2015, manufacturers and importers of photovoltaic panels are obliged to organize and finance their collection and recycling at the end of their useful life, which is done through the figure of SCRAP. Although there are currently no recycling plants in Spain with sufficient capacity to manage all this waste.

Renewable energies and digitalization

The path towards the adoption of renewable energy sources is unavoidable in order to meet our climate objectives, but the data show that there is still a long way to go to make this transition sustainable. As we have seen, for the moment, the recovery of materials for reuse is neither sufficient nor cost-effective.

Therefore, the integration of digitization in this process is essential to detect points of improvement and provide cost-effectiveness to the recovery process.

Achieving smart and circular management of waste from renewable energies goes hand in hand with technology . Improving the quality of data, automating the control of information flows and traceability, promoting regulatory compliance and enabling the extraction of quality knowledge to develop zero waste or circular economy policies are now in the hands of digitization.

Would you like to know more about this topic? Listen to the Ogami Station podcast episode, "Miguel Varela: how renewables waste is managed".


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