What happens to the waste from renewable energies?

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

A more circular Europe without fossil fuels

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

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

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

To achieve climate neutrality, it is necessary to reduce almost all fossil fuel consumption, replacing it with energy efficiency and renewable sources.

But it is also essential to consider the dimension of waste from renewable sources, which will multiply in the long term as their use increases exponentially worldwide. And with this new scenario, new doubts arise: do we have the tools and procedures to recover 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?

About the waste from the photovoltaic energy

In the upcoming years, it will be necessary to address the management of current wind and photovoltaic plant facilities at the end of their lifecycle.

The renewal of equipment, together with advances in efficiency, will generate a large amount of waste which, if not properly treated, will have a major impact on the environment.

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

  • Construction phase: building and demolition waste such as rubble, soil or construction materials.
  • Operation phase: maintenance waste such as oils, solvents, paints and varnishes, contaminated cloths, non-hazardous waste such as plastic residues, WEEE, batteries, etc. Waste is also generated during the installation and maintenance of infrastructures, both due to breakages and malfunctions.
  • End-of-life: the most prominent waste, the solar panel itself, is categorised 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. Currently, wind turbine blades are landfilled at the end of their lifecycle, resulting in the loss of a huge amount of potential secondary raw materials.

A growth that exceeds forecasts

The photovoltaic expansion of recent years has exceeded all expectations. This will lead to 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 tonnes were collected, but 1,000 of them last year alone. Furthermore, expectations are that the 1,300 tonnes of photovoltaic panels collected in 2022 as a whole could be exceeded, which is more than 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 systems.

This increase will have undeniable benefits in terms of reduced emissions, but it leaves a footprint that cannot be ignored: the polluting trace of manufacturing, transporting and minimal recycling of solar panels.

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

This figure will increase tenfold by mid-century and will account for more than 10% of the world's e-waste, according to a study published in Nature energy. "Incorporating recoverable materials would generate a saving 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 California case: panels on landfills

California has been a pioneer in promoting rooftop solar energy, creating the largest solar market in the United States: 1.3 million rooftops in 20 years, with subsidies to encourage the use of solar energy starting in 2006. The problem: they had no integral plan to get rid of them.

Now, the purchased panels are nearing the end of their life cycle (25 to 30 years) and 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 US costs between $20 and $30, while sending it to a landfill costs between $1 and $2.

The waste and resources generated by photovoltaic solar 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 can be recovered thanks to the recycling technology developed to date. Specifically, from each tonne 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 aluminium from the metal frames and to a lesser extent copper from the wiring and iron)
  • 20kg of plastic

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

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

In Spain, since February 2015, manufacturers and importers of photovoltaic panels are required to organise and finance their collection and recycling at the end of their lifecycle, 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 energy and digitalisation

The path towards the adoption of renewable energy sources is essential to meet our climate goals, but the evidence shows that there is still a long way to go to make this transition sustainable. As we have seen, at the moment, the recovery of materials for reuse is neither sufficient nor cost-effective, so the integration of digitalisation in this process is essential to identify areas for improvement and to make the recovery process profitable.

Achieving smart and circular management of waste from renewable energy goes together with technology.  Improving the quality of data, automating the control of information flows and traceability, promoting compliance with regulations and making it possible to extract quality knowledge to draw up zero waste or circular economy policies are now in the hands of digitalisation.‍

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


Subscribe to newsletter

Do you want to receive our news in your inbox?