Renewable technologies can’t escape the issue of waste management

February 3, 2021, 7:01AMANS Nuclear Cafe

A recent article from Deseret News looks at the stark reality of hazardous waste piling up from the green energy revolution. The lengthy article, "The dark side of ‘green energy’ and its threat to the nation’s environment," was written by News reporter Amy Joi O’Donoghue and is based on an Environmental Protection Agency briefing from the Trump administration. The briefing, issued in January, outlines the difficulties the United States will face in recycling and safely disposing of the materials used for green energy technologies.

Green energy’s looming waste problem: While the current fervor around the globe is to decarbonize as quickly as possible using wind and solar, the energy industry has yet to fully tackle the long-term waste stream for these systems. Many supporters think that renewable energy equals no waste, when in reality all energy-producing technologies produce waste that should be managed responsibly. That includes solar panels and wind turbines, which have their own environmental hazards such as toxic metals, oil, fiberglass, and other materials. Andrew Wheeler, EPA administrator at the time, said, “Without a strategy for their end-of-life management, so-called green technologies like solar panels, electric vehicle batteries, and windmills will ultimately place [an] unintended burden on our planet and economy.”

Solar waste: According to the EPA briefing, the United States will have 10 million tons of solar waste by 2050. The briefing includes predictions for other countries as well:

  • China, 20 million tons
  • India, 7.5 million tons
  • Japan, 7.5 million tons
  • Germany, 4.3 million tons

Most solar panels have lifespans of at most 30 years or so. Those panels recently installed will need disposal in the 2050 timeframe.

What about wind? O’Donoghue states that according to the EPA briefing, “Windmills are the least energy producing and most physically difficult renewable energy waste stream to address.” The huge size of windmills (a size that appears to continue to grow) makes recycling old turbines difficult. There is some good news regarding wind power, however. General Electric announced last year that it had reached a multiyear agreement with Veolia North America to launch the first wind blade recycling program in the United States, according to an article in Utility Dive.

Nuclear waste comparison: The scale of the nuclear waste problem is not to be ignored. A 2018 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency tallies the amount of spent fuel discharged from all nuclear power plants worldwide from the start of electricity production in 1954 through the end of 2013. The total: 367,600 metric tons (just over 405,000 standard tons) accumulated globally across nearly six decades—miniscule compared to the numbers reported above for solar alone.

The nuclear community has shown that it can safely store, transport, and dispose of the waste. It will take the will of the government, however, to allow for those processes to be implemented and funded on a national level.

The American Nuclear Society is a strong advocate for a robust and safe nuclear waste program and convened a Nuclear Waste Policy Task Force in 2019 to provide recommendations to Congress on a path forward. In June of that year, the chair of the task force, Steven Nesbit, testified on the topic to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The task force then released a written brief in February 2020, A Proposal for Progress on Nuclear Waste Management. Even considering Yucca Mountain is off the table as a viable waste repository, the task force proposal lists several steps that the federal government can take immediately to put the United States on a better path toward effective management of spent fuel and high-level waste.

Perhaps renewable technology producers should take a page out of the nuclear community’s book when it comes to dealing with waste.

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