As renewable energy takes over, ways sought to manage its byproduct—wastes
MANILA, Philippines—As countries pivot to the use of renewable energy technologies amid the climate crisis, energy experts are trying to shine the light on the need for research and innovation to prevent a byproduct of these technologies from smearing the gains of environmentally sound power sources—wastes.
Speaking to journalists in briefings organized by the Foreign Press Centers, renewable energy experts in the United States said there must be a system in collecting and handling wastes from renewables, like solar panels or wind turbines that have already reached the end of their operating lives.
“We can’t just throw them into a landfill and expect everything to be okay,” said Jeff Logan, associate director of energy, policy and analysis of the Colorado-based Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute, a joint initiative of the University of Colorado-Boulder and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) of the US Department of Energy.
“We need to figure out ways to minimize waste and then recycle as much of that material as we can,” he added. “Some of that requires a fundamental redesign of how those products are produced.”
Logan said NREL had recently introduced in the United States a plan to apply circular economy, or a means by which waste is eliminated or reduced by reusing materials, on the renewable energy sector.
Renewable, but not waste-free
At the end of 2017, photovoltaic capacity of solar energy installations worldwide had already reached 400 gigawatts (GW). It was expected to further increase to 4,500 GW by 2050, according to a study in the journal Energy Strategy Reviews in 2020.
While solar power is seen as a better alternative to fossil fuels that emit carbons, increasing capacity worldwide also translates to higher volume of wastes from solar panels, which have an average lifespan of 25 years.
These panels, which convert sunlight to electricity, can be hazardous when discarded improperly, since they contain toxic chemicals that can leak to the environment.
The International Renewable Energy Agency estimated that there were already at least 250,000 metric tons of solar panel waste globally at the end of 2016.
Dustin Smith, executive director of the Solar Technology Acceleration Center, also in Colorado, said the solar industry has been fundamentally “doing absolutely nothing” to recycle or reuse these wastes at the moment.
“We’ve got to find a way to recycle panels with as little human contact as possible, because that’s how you reduce cost,” he said.
Smith said that there needs to be more serious solutions to waste disposal or conversion challenges that renewables are creating.
He said people needed to “get things turned into that renewable resource that we can then put back into new panels again because eventually we’re going to run short of certain things.”
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