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Best Practices for Utility-Scale Solar Project Wood Crate Waste

image credit: Green Clean Solar
Emilie O'Leary's picture
Owner & CEO Green Clean Solar

I am the CEO and Owner of Green Clean Solar, based in Marietta, Georgia. I have a strong passion and expertise in the solar industry, focusing on waste management and landfill diversion services...

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  • Apr 26, 2022
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Utility-scale solar projects are critical for the transition to global renewable energy efforts. They allow for larger conversion from fossil fuels and help us acquire a predictable and stable renewable energy source. Utility solar is expected to continue dominating solar installation projects in the coming years (seen in light blue on the graph below from SEIA). These projects also have a remarkable ability to shift the needle from oil and gas dominance to renewable dominance, which is projected to occur globally by the mid-2030s, reducing carbon emissions drastically.

 

 

 

One issue that arises as we delve into more utility solar projects is the waste that comes with such a large scale. In addition to plastic, broken panels, metal, and cardboard, a very sizeable waste material on large-scale projects, are all the wood crates from PV panel shipments. The PV panel crate packaging has become a huge challenge on larger scales and must be dealt with responsibly and efficiently.

 

The challenge of wood crates and PV crates/shipping

“After more than ten years on large-scale solar projects, I came to realize in addition to solving our energy challenges we must pave the way to better solar construction waste management - in addition to panels, large-scale wood crate leftovers are a huge part of this,” Emilie Oxel O’Leary, CEO/Owner, Green Clean Solar. What we need to remember is the manufacturing of wood crate pallets spans pretty evenly across many regions of the world, including North America (United States, Mexico, Canada), Europe (Germany, France, Russia, Italy, Turkey, UK), South America (Brazil, Argentina, Columbia), Asia-Pacific (China, Japan, India, Thailand, Vietnam), and the Middle East and Africa (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, South Africa, Nigeria).

 

The spread of wood pallet manufacturing throughout most regions worldwide is geared toward ensuring global demand can meet the established and growing quotas. Additionally, there are various key players in the global wood pallet market, including CHEP, PalletOne, Kamps Pallets, Pooling Partners, PECO, John Rock, United Pallet Services, and Pacific Pallet. Most of the virgin material used in the manufacturing of wood pallets derives from North America, Europe, Asia-Pacific, and South America stock. While technically still a renewable resource (unlike finite precious metals), wood could be handled more responsibly on the back end of solar panel shipping. while the industry sources more reusable systems that can deliver PVs securely and contribute to waste reduction efforts. However, as it stands, 90% of the pallet market is made from wood.

 

Globally, stakeholders have realized there’s a need to adopt succinct measures geared toward better diversion standards for wood crate pallets. In some regions of the world, new measures are being followed, and in other places recycling is required, to ensure wood crate pallets don’t get solely dumped in roll-off bins destined for landfills.

What are the solutions to putting wood crates in landfills?

One common avenue utilized for wood crates is reselling them if they’re not too damaged or treated. Interestingly, wood can be placed in substances such as Copper Azole, which leaves the wood with a clean and paintable surface. It also results in a situation where the wood cannot contaminate food or water, as explained by the EPA. Another option is composting the pallets to turn them into landscape mulch. These adopted measures are geared toward protecting the environment while reducing landfill hauls - about 12.15 million tons (80%) are wasted and go to landfills. Reusing and repurposing wood pallets allows wood and wood byproducts to stay in use for an extended time.

Approximately 3.1 million tons (that’s a modest 20%) of wood pallets were recycled in 2018. This gap can be closed even further with Utility Solar Industry waste reduction efforts for post-project pallets. Instead, wood can be recycled by being placed into industrial-size chippers and broken into varying sizes, helping with the growth of vegetation and native grasses. Wood chips with compromised glues and chemicals can be used in areas where the soil will break them down but should be avoided where food is grown.

Source: Daily Energy Insider

Source: Florida Power & Light

There are various solutions to deal with the problem of dumping massive amounts of wood crates into landfills. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests focusing on chipping and composting as a solution. By focusing on shredding wood into medium-sized pieces ensures the decomposition process for wood crates. Mulch can then be used onsite, sold, or donated.

Incinerating wood crates is not a standard disposal method the industry should rely on. Considering, for example, ink printed on the boxes release harmful chemicals, amongst other harmful gases that may occur.

 

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Discussions
Julian Jackson's picture
Julian Jackson on Apr 28, 2022

Thanks for bringing this to my attention: I hadn't really every considered the issues of the packing material renewables use. Which I certainly ought to. However, surely wood pallets are reusable/recyclable in numerous ways, far more than plastic?  They could be made into wood pellets for fuel?  Or ground up and turned into mdf or other construction material? I thought most pallets were just wood nailed together. I can't remember seeing any varnish or other nasties. Although I wasn't paying close attention, I must admit. 

Emilie O'Leary's picture
Emilie O'Leary on May 11, 2022

Thank you, Julian. Yes, the treatment of pallets is interesting. In order to mitigate wood pathogens, wood pallets are treated by various methods, often depending on where they originate. They can be debarked, heat-treated, or kiln-dried (these are safe); then, there are more toxic treatments like methyl bromide and colored pallet treatments. The treatment of the wood is important to consider when thinking about how it will be handled, but yes ultimately more manageable as a waste material than plastic.

Emilie O'Leary's picture
Thank Emilie for the Post!
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