Here’s something I often hear: solar panels — or wind turbines for that matter — aren’t really that great because many end up in landfill instead of being recycled.
And that the more of these we use, the worse it will get.
Modules are expected to last an average of 21 years, and the concern is that we could be heading into a flood of solar panel waste in the next few years.
I’ve witnessed some heated discussions about this, even though our current energy system is not…ahem…the cleanest.
Look, it’s true that things aren’t perfect (what is?), but it’s early days.
While solar panels are recyclable and contain valuable stuff like aluminium, copper, and silver, the percentage that ends up recycled varies.
I haven’t been able to get specific numbers for Australia, but in the US, about 10% of panels are recycled.
In the EU, manufacturers are required to collect and recycle solar panels.
The main challenge is that it takes time to separate all the components of a solar panel, and it’s costly.
It’s a similar thing for wind turbines.
About 85% of a wind turbine is already recyclable. The problem is the blades, where the materials are hard to separate for recycling.
And then there’s the size. While the blades can be cut into pieces, they are still difficult and expensive to transport for recycling.
In saying that, though, it’s a problem that’s been around for a while, and there’s a lot of pressure to find a solution.
Recycling will be ‘big business’
There are already many companies looking to tackle this issue.
For wind, there are programs like DecomBlades, for example, that are looking into reusing or recycling wind turbine blades. Siemens has also recently launched the first recyclable wind turbine blade.
In regard to solar panels, First Solar in the US, for example, recycles its own solar panels, achieving recovery rates of up to 90% for semiconductor and glass materials. And in Australia, there are recycling companies popping up like Lotus Energy or EcoActiv.
Recycling is something that we will need to do more of, not only to reduce waste, but to increase the supply of raw materials as we continue to move through the energy transition.
As Rystad Energy Analyst Kristin Stuge said:
‘Rising energy costs, improved recycling technology, and government regulations may pave the way for a market where more defunct solar panels are sent to recycling rather than the nearest landfill. Recycling PV panels can help operators save costs, overcome supply chain woes and increase the likelihood of countries meeting their solar capacity goals.’
But there’ll also be plenty of money in it up for grabs.
Rystad calculates that the solar panel recycling market could be worth more than $4 billion by 2030, up from $250 million. And could hit a whopping $118 billion by 2050.
The market for recycling lithium-ion batteries is expected to be even bigger. According to Allied Market Research, it could reach US$66.6 billion by 2030, up from US$11.1 billion in 2020.
But if there’s one important thing to understand when comparing our current energy system to the one that’s coming, it’s that…
We’re not comparing apples to apples
The energy transition is not so much that we are moving from one type of fuel to another. We are not simply shifting from sourcing our energy from oil/coal to solar/wind, as we did in the past when we moved from wood to coal.
There’s much more to it.
One way to think about fossil fuels is as a store of energy. We dig it up, we ship it, and we burn it. And then repeat. Once it’s burned, it’s gone.
Fossil fuels use a lot more resources. When it comes to coal, 1% of emissions come from building the coal plant, but 99% comes from its operations.
On average, we need 717 grams of coal to generate one kilowatt hour of electricity. This is more than 1,400 times the materials needed per kilowatt hour by solar power and more than 3,500 times for wind, according to Solar Quotes.
Solar panels and wind turbines take a lot of resources to build, but they are upfront costs that allow us to create energy.
Being able to produce your own energy in itself is a massive story. Energy is everything.
But the main thing to understand is that while one is burned, the other one can flow. Cables aren’t like pipelines, which flow one way.
Flows can move from one place to another. From your house to your car and vice versa, from your house to the grid. And when you combine it with other innovations such as AI and the internet of things, to name a few, we can increase efficiency, allowing energy to flow where it’s needed.
And this allows us to do much more with our energy.
Until next week,
For Money Morning
Selva is also the Editor of New Energy Investor, a newsletter that looks for opportunities in the energy transition. For information on how to subscribe, click here.