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Scrub Hub: Do wind turbines and solar panels go to the landfill, or can they be recycled?

Source: 
Indianapolis Star

Renewable energy has been on the rise for nearly two decades. That will come as no surprise to many of you who have seen more wind turbines pop up in fields or solar panels on rooftops.

In fact, in 2019, renewable energy consumption across the country surpassed that of coal for the first time in 130 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That comes from a continued decline in the amount of coal used for electricity generation coupled with a growth in renewables, mostly from wind and solar, the agency said.

But those turbines and panels don't last forever. According to industry standards, a wind turbine will typically last around 20-25 years while the lifespan for a solar panel is usually around 25-30 years.

That means that some of the wind and solar sources installed early in the current boom are nearing the time when they'll be retired. And each passing year, more will be pulled from service — meaning we will soon have tens of millions of metric tons that have to be dealt with.

According to a scientist and expert with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, we're going to have a waste management issue and this is becoming more widely recognized as an issue that needs to start being addressed soon.

That brings us to the question we will be taking a look at in this installment of the Scrub Hub: What happens to wind turbines and solar panels at the end of their useful life? More specifically, can they be recycled or do they end up in a landfill?

The short answer: It's a mixed bag

This is another one of those situations where it really depends: Different parts of turbines and panels are recyclable, while others are not.

The design of most wind turbines are a rotor with three fiberglass blades attached to a hub that's mounted on a steel tower. With solar panels, they are made of an aluminum frame with tempered glass and the solar cells. There are many other different components and inner workings, but those are the main aspects.

As of right now, quite a few parts of turbines and panels are piling up in landfills across the country. The fiberglass blades — many of which can be longer than a Boeing 747 plane wing — are being sawed into pieces and have nowhere to go other than in the garbage. And panel pieces can be hard to separate, leaving many to just discard the whole thing.

That said, many individual components can be recycled, including the steel towers from turbines or the aluminum and glass in solar panels. As technology continues to advance, the companies that design and manufacture these renewable sources are also continuing to look for ways to both improve their efficiency, lengthen their lifespan and enhance their recyclability.

The long answer: It comes down to processing

Even still, environmental and energy experts recognize there is a long way to go to be equipped for the massive amount of waste expected from renewables in the future. For renewables to be a cleaner energy source, that includes disposal, too, said Andrew King with RecycleForce, an electronic recycling company based in Indianapolis.

As much as 85% of a wind turbine and 90% of a solar panel can be recycled, according to industry numbers. But that is the case only if the necessary processing is in place to make that happen.

Part of the problem is the way turbines and panels are built: To last. Because, by their very nature, they are installed outside in nature, they are constructed to withstand the elements, whether that's strong winds, storms, rain, etc. As a result, that makes them quite difficult to break down into their individual components and materials.

With the turbines, for example, it can be hard to separate the fiberglass and plastic in the blades, needing a diamond-wire saw to cut through them. With the solar panels, according to King, the components are bonded by silicone.

There are different methods to separate those pieces, he said, such as using chemicals and heat, or finding a way to mechanically shred them. King said that's what RecycleForce is working on, finding a way to break apart the materials in a way they can recycle as much as possible out of the solar panels.

"It would be irresponsible for people to think it’s not going to be a problem," King said. "If we don't, what happens is this stuff will go to landfills, and it shouldn’t be there."

GE Renewable Energy is doing something similar with the wind turbine blades, just announcing a partnership that will create the first U.S. blade recycling program of its kind. In this program, the blades will be shredded and used to replace raw materials for cement manufacturing — making the blades fully recyclable.

But this work doesn't come without a cost. Renewables don't hold a lot of recycle value in the materials you can get out of them, and there is the cost to process them. That means they actually have a negative value, according to King.

Somehow this needs to be paid for. Companies are working to develop more of a market for these materials, to increase their inherent value. King thinks there also is an opportunity to have partnerships with manufacturers, the government and workforce development programs to help subsidize or cover some of the costs before this industry can get off the ground.

That's what RecycleForce does. They work with previously incarcerated individuals to give them high-paying and skilled jobs. King says this presents a chance for economic and job growth — similar to the one that's come with renewable energy consumption on the front end.

It's possible for solar panels and wind turbines to truly stay out of landfills and cycle back into other products, but the process for that to happen needs to scale up quickly to be able to handle the millions of tons of renewable waste that we'll see in the coming decades.

"We are trying to solve the problem as the technology continues to develop," King said. "We need to make sure we follow the evolution of the material so we have a system that can process the renewables of the future."

This, of course, is just an overview to get you thinking. If you want more specifics, that’s a perfect opportunity to ask the Scrub Hub.

Submit a question through our Google form below. Can’t see the form? Click here.

Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at sarah.bowman@indystar.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.

IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Scrub Hub: Do wind turbines and solar panels go to the landfill, or can they be recycled?

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(c)2021 The Indianapolis Star

Visit The Indianapolis Star at www.IndyStar.com

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