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The dark side of a renewables future

With solar panel and wind turbine production absorbing resources and causing waste, the renewables sector must find recycling solutions to establish a circular economy that truly helps decarbonise energy footprints

Solar panels Reuters
Renewables waste: A solar panels recycling plant in France

During the Cop27 climate summit, hosted in Egypt this year, nations revisited the notion that fossil fuels need to be phased out in favour of renewables such as solar and wind, first because oil is a finite commodity, and second because emissions are exacerbating climate change. 

In recent years solar power has become the cheapest and fastest growing source of electricity. Solar installations have grown by 30 percent on average and witnessed a significant drop of 90 percent in price over the last 20 years, due to tax incentives and more efficient material allocation.

However, the global solar production boom is producing exorbitant amounts of waste. Solar panels rely on carbon and energy intensive materials, such as silicon and glass.

In the US First Solar is the sole American panel manufacturer, with an end-of-life recycling solution for its own production line. With its current capacity it costs between $20 and $30 to recycle one panel, whereas landfilling offers a cheaper alternative of $1 to $2. 

This case is not isolated – the International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that 78 million tonnes of solar panel waste will be produced by 2050. Panels require sunlight, which is dilute and diffuse, requiring large collectors to efficiently capture and convert the sun’s rays into electricity. 

In turn these large surface areas not only take up vast amounts of land that could be competing for crop cultivation for food security, but also require more materials to manufacture compared to other energy sources. 

Other renewable energy technologies are facing the same dilemma. Experts predict that more than 720,000 tonnes of wind turbine blades will end up in US landfills over the next decade. Similarly, only 5 percent of EV batteries are currently recycled.  

What’s more, up to 90 percent of electronic waste is illegally traded and dumped in developing nations, which do not currently have the infrastructure or technical capability to process the toxic waste. 

But the practical issues with renewables go beyond technical or technological conundrums. They rely on dilute fuels we simply cannot control: sunlight and wind.

Wind turbine blades could end up in landfill without recycling solutions. Picture: Reuters

If the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow, the outputs become increasingly unreliable, as climate change manipulates the frequency and duration of extreme weather events. 

With careful coordination, utilities and grid operators no longer see intermittency or seasonal variations as a major obstacle. Neighbouring countries may be able to avail of inter-geographic grid stabilisation if they plan and coordinate ahead.

However, we must still consider what happens to renewables if they cannot be renewed.

The circular economy plays a critical role in decarbonising global energy footprints. But the required solar panel recycling capacity must be produced in parallel with a comprehensive end-of-life infrastructure that can allow for the deconstruction, logistics and storage facilities necessary for solar waste. 

This is particularly important as solar panels contain lead, cadmium and other toxic chemicals that cannot be removed without breaking apart the entire panel. This may have grave consequences for air, soil and water pollution. 

As the production of renewables is expected to increase, so should building the infrastructure for mandatory recycling – not just for public health reasons, but for the economy, too.

The value of recovered material from used solar panels could exceed $15 billion by 2050, unlocking further value to overcome the sobering reality of a renewables-dependent future which faces a critical metals shortage. 

The practical prospects of phasing out fossil fuels in favour of renewables is proving to be a more daunting task than initially imagined.

Prior to 2020 the global system mined 700 million tonnes of copper throughout history. The same 700 million tonnes will be needed to be mined over the next 22 years to produce just one generation of renewables. 

Earlier this year an industry report commissioned by a group representing the EU’s largest metal producers, including Glencore and Rio Tinto, highlighted the supply gap.

The report estimates that to meet the region’s clean energy goals, Europe will require 35 times more lithium and seven to 26 times the amount of rare earth metals in 2050 compared with today. 

It will also require a 35 percent increase in copper and a 100 percent increase of nickel.

As part of the mineral intensive future needed for batteries, solar panels and wind turbines, we may have to look beyond borders for an increasingly competitive raw materials market. 

The European market case study may offer some insights to help overcome gaps for a future that pins its hopes on renewables to combat climate change.

Despite the looming “metal crunch” of lithium, cobalt, nickel, rare earths and copper, there is still a silver lining. 

In Europe alone, 75 percent of the region’s clean energy metal requirements can be met through local recycling infrastructure – providing more opportunities for the circular economy to play a fundamental role in overcoming supply shocks, inflation and our global e-waste problem.

The right approach to phasing out fossil fuels should emphasise planning supply chain risks and storage considerations, and incorporate global recycling infrastructure networks.

Rana Hajirasouli is founder of The Surpluss, the UAE-based digital ecosystem where businesses share surplus resources to enhance sustainability and innovation