Commentary: Green tech hasn’t solved disposal, recycling issues


While wind and solar farms generate greenhouse gas-free electricity, there are ongoing concerns over their impacts on our environment, especially as a rapidly growing number of worn-out blades and panels are landing in landfills.

Those blades, housed on giant wind towers reaching over 250 feet in the sky, are starting to reach the end of their useful lives — 15 to 20 years — and are being taken down, cut up and hauled to burial sites.

Even though over 90% of the decommissioned wind towers and generating apparatus are recycled, the specialized fiberglass and composite blades are mostly entombed.

It is the same for spent solar panels. Only 10% are recycled. Recycling is sometimes called “wish-cycling” because the market drives the cheapest option, which often is dumping them in landfills.

Harvard Business Review published a report, “The Dark Side of Solar Power.” It concluded, “Solar energy is a rapidly growing market, which should be good news for the environment. Unfortunately, there is a catch. … The replacement rate of solar panels is faster than expected and given the current recycling costs, there is a real danger all used solar panels will go straight to landfills (along with equally hard-to-recycle wind turbines).”

The International Renewable Energy Agency anticipates enormous amounts of annual solar panel waste, which could reach 78 million tons by 2050, and recycling technology is woefully behind. Those totals could increase if solar panels and wind blades are destroyed while generating electricity.

For example, in March, a pounding hailstorm destroyed substantial portions of the mammoth 3,300-acre Fighting Jays Solar Project located south of Houston. It highlighted the perils of trading traditional power sources for vulnerable “green” alternatives and sparking concern about the potential for chemical leaks from the broken panel.

Toxins also are released during mining of minerals to produce silicon for solar panel manufacturing.

Renewable Energy’s Jane Marsh wrote last year, “Mining produces countless pollutants, and noticing this is critical for understanding the whole picture. The mined product needs refinement, and furnaces reshaping these minerals create waste and harm the air, affecting workers who inhale these toxins.”

In Odessa, Texas, a startup recycler, SolarCycle, processes end-of-life photovoltaic panels from commercial solar farms. After stripping aluminum frames and electrical boxes, panels are ground, shredded, and subjected to a patented process that extracts the valuable materials—mostly silver, copper, and crystalline silicon. Those components will be sold, as will the lower-value aluminum and glass.

“The wind turbine blades are a toxic amalgam of unique composites, fiberglass, epoxy, polyvinyl chloride foam, polyethylene terephthalate foam, balsa wood and polyurethane coatings,” Principia Scientific International, a London-based group of scientists, states. “Basically, there is just too much plastic-composite-epoxy crapola that isn’t worth recycling.”

Marsh adds, “The bottom line is no technology is ideal, especially up-and-coming environmentalist assets. Electric vehicle manufacturers must determine how to construct and recycle lithium-ion batteries, despite decreasing the world’s reliance on fossil fuels … solar panels are no exception. For solar to maintain installation momentum, the sector must find a way to eliminate harmful materials before its potential is tarnished. Industries that ignore the adverse side effects of solar panel creation diminish humanity’s efforts to heal the planet.”

Roger that.

Our nation needs an all-inclusive energy strategy that focuses on meeting power demand, eliminating toxins and recycling.


Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and retired president of the Association of Washington Business. He now lives in Vancouver, Washington, and can be contacted at