The Latest Environmental Problem? Wind Turbine Blades and Solar Panels

For ardent environmentalists, they have two long-standing problems that they don’t seem to realize:  one is that they need to avoid making predictions. When it comes to climate, let’s just say it isn’t an exact science and those who have made global warming/climate change a religion seem to want to ramp up doomsday scenarios to increase the sense of urgency. We can look most infamously at Al Gore’s prediction that the world’s ice caps would disappear by 2016. Or the prediction from some in 2005 that climate change would cause more damaging hurricanes and unstable weather, right before the US had the longest period in history with no major hurricanes to hit the coast of the country (Oct. 2005-2015).

The second problem that ardent environmentalists have is that they are so quick to jump on a bandwagon to ‘take action and do something’ that sometimes there isn’t a lot of thought put into what that action is. A few of us may be old enough to remember when the big concern was about the loss of trees and declining forests. So the answer was to quit using paper bags and to switch to plastic. Of course, now that’s all changed. Plastic is bad, doesn’t break down in landfills and so the solution has created an even greater problem (at least paper bags were biodegradable). The same may be turning out to be true for renewable energy.

We are now getting to the time when the initial wind turbines are starting to reach the end of life and need to be replaced.

While a good portion of a turbine can be recycled or find a second life on another wind farm, the blades of the turbine are another story. Researchers estimate the U.S. will have more than 720,000 tons of blade material to dispose of over the next 20 years, a figure that doesn’t include newer, taller higher-capacity versions.

There aren’t many options to recycle or trash turbine blades, and what options do exist are expensive. Just the cost of transporting a blade hundreds of feet in length to a landfill is an issue, assuming you can find a landfill that will take tons of waste that size. It’s a waste problem that runs counter to what the industry is held up to be: a perfect solution for environmentalists looking to combat global warming, an attractive investment for companies such as Budweiser and Hormel Foods, and a job creator across the Midwest and Great Plains.

The size of the problem is staggering. The wind industry will generate 50,000 tons of blade waste in 2020, but that will quadruple to 225,000 tons by 2034. By 2050, wind turbine blades that are worn out and have to be disposed of will be more than all the plastic generated. A good deal of plastic at least can be recycled.

A similar problem may be brewing for solar panels. Wired magazine ran an article in August. From that article:

“Solar panels are… a complex pieces of technology that become big, bulky sheets of electronic waste at the end of their lives—and right now, most of the world doesn’t have a plan for dealing with that.

But we’ll need to develop one soon, because the solar e-waste glut is coming. By 2050, the International Renewable Energy Agency projects that up to 78 million metric tons of solar panels will have reached the end of their life, and that the world will be generating about 6 million metric tons of new solar e-waste annually.” 

As we rush to find alternative fuels to meet growing demand, we should be cautious that, in the rush, we don’t spend a lot of money to pursue an alternative that is as bad as the disease

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