Renewable energy from solar and wind power has picked up steam over the past 20 years, as is evidenced by the proliferation of solar panels and wind turbines dotting the landscape.

The goal of this technology is to improve the environment, but a major environmental challenge lies ahead.  Hardware installed at the beginning of this trend is now approaching end-of-life and is being taken out of service.  Growing mountains of decommissioned solar panels and wind turbine blades are piling up to be landfilled with a lack of commercially ready recycling options available today.

One reason solar panels and wind turbines are challenging to recycle cost effectively is the way they are built.  Renewable energy hardware is meant to perform outside in all types of weather for at least 20 years.  It must withstand precipitation, heat, freezing temperatures, hurricane-force winds and still be able to perform its function for decades.  Consequently, solar panels and wind turbines are constructed to be indestructible, and that is part of the problem.  The hardware is not easy to break down in a recycling process.

Solar Panel Recycling

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website on solar panel recycling, by 2030, the value of recoverable raw materials from end-of-life solar panels globally will be $450 million.  That equals the raw material cost to make 60 million new panels, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.   Recycling the panels would capture these raw materials, while saving space in landfills and preventing pollution from burying hazardous materials like cadmium and lead contained in some panels.  The technological challenge is how to extract the valuable raw materials in the panel.

A solar panel is made of an aluminum frame that holds a sandwich of glass, copper wires, polymer layers, silicon solar cells, minute amounts of silver and other metals, and a plastic junction box, sealed tightly together with silicone.  The glass, copper, aluminum and plastic junction box are easily recyclable.  The problem is the material inside the solar cells.  Tiny amounts of silver, copper and sometimes toxic metals like lead and cadmium are packed inside the cells.

While it is not hard to remove the frame and glass, separation and purification of the cells requires a higher tech chemical, thermal or electrical technique.  Recycling already is established for glass, metals and electronics by crushing, shredding and milling.  After the glass, aluminum and copper are recovered, currently the silicon cells are often just incinerated.  Researchers and industry experts are examining how to, in a cost-effective way, commercialize the process and recover all the valuable raw materials, like silver, which comprises the biggest value in the solar panel.  Right now, experts say, the economics don’t add up.

“It costs more to break a panel down and recover the raw materials than what the raw materials themselves are worth,” an industry source told the website Green Biz last year.  Now it is a low-margin business that doesn’t economically justify investment. Developing technology alone is not enough.  We must make sure it is viable in the marketplace, he added.

Wind Turbine Recycling

A wind turbine’s construction may be less complicated than a solar panel, but it is not more easily recycled.  Currently, some components are recyclable, but some are not.  A turbine is made up of a rotor, three fiberglass blades attached to a hub mounted on a steel tower.  While the steel in the tower is recyclable, it is the fiberglass fan blades that are more challenging.   The blades are generally longer than a Boeing 747 airplane wing and at an average width of 164 feet, about the width of a football field.  At this size, when they are taken down, a tractor trailer can cart away only one blade at a time, making even the transportation costs high.

Once taken down, diamond-encrusted or vehicle-mounted industrial saws cut the blades into sizes small enough to be stored and landfilled.  “Physical and material scientists can recycle blades now,” a wind analyst from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory told USA Today last year.  But, he added, “scaling up a recycling technology will require more research and development to maximize the value of the recycled materials and improve the economics of the process.”

For turbine blades, the good news is that efforts are currently underway to bring solutions to market. Some companies are hard at work trying to jump start and commercialize new technologies that would recycle the blades and use the resulting fiber as a raw material for the manufacturing of cement, mortar, asphalt and possibly other materials.

Industry Solutions

With challenges come opportunities.  For both solar panels and wind turbine blades, renewable energy and industry experts are exploring three avenues to address the hardware issue.  First, they are seeking to improve the efficiency of the systems so that less hardware will be necessary to generate the same amount of energy.  This would decrease the volume of waste.  Second, they are seeking to lengthen the lifespans of the hardware, allowing them to be in service for longer periods of time, also decreasing the amount of waste.  Finally, they are working on the engineering and construction side, to improve the recyclability of the hardware so that it can be more easily broken and recycled.

Where does this leave us?

As renewable energy becomes increasingly prevalent, the disposal and recycling of decommissioned renewable energy systems becomes more and more important.  To tackle this coming problem, researchers and industry are collaborating to develop technology that is cost effective so that it can be adapted to the marketplace.  The good news is that innovative solutions are now being explored and developed. 

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