Although renewable energy technologies are praised for their ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), they still have a significant environmental impact.
In this regard, several companies and organizations are working on different efforts to reduce their emissions and impact on wildlife habitats, water use, and landfill management.
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Renewable energies’ technologies can also pollute
Among the difficulties that solar and wind energy companies face in reducing their environmental impact are PV panels and turbine blades recycling problems, toxics generation, and wastewater consequences.
According to projections from the Energy Information Administration, the renewable generation’s share is increasing from 18% in 2018 to 31% in the U.S. by 2050. In this sense, climate activists, investors, and industry people acknowledge that as solar and wind capacity grows, so does the scale of their effects.
Renewables do have some significant environmental impacts. Nevertheless, their effects are not as hazardous as those released by other fossil-fueled power generators. Even so, solar and wind energy should not be exempt from environmental regulations.
In this regard, the Green Electronics Council (GEC) and NSF International worked together to announce new solar eco-standards within the past year. These standards look to evaluate areas like recycled content, not only for the PV panels themselves but also for solar inverters.
More recently, both organizations worked on adding solar panels and inverters to their EPEAT ecolabel registry. This registry gives manufacturers several guidelines to strive for and provides purchasers information regarding the most sustainable PV panels and inverters to invest in.
Solar PV panels can release toxic components such as silicon tetrachloride, silane, hydrofluoric acid, and large quantities of acidic and alkaline wastewater. In this regard, companies such as First Solar have worked on improving their processes over time through more advanced technologies.
For instance, the Company now produces its PV panels with CdTe, or cadmium telluride, a waste byproduct coming out of copper mining. Rather than using multi-crystalline silicon, the Company relies on this new technology, annually producing 5.7 GW of solar module capacity among plants in Ohio, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Besides, First Solar reuses its wastewater throughout its manufacturing process.
Another example is Singapore-based Maxeon Solar Technologies. This Company deals with its wastewater using hydrofluoric acid for surface etching.
Regarding wildlife and land use impacts of PV panels and wind turbines, an impressive view is the Agrivoltaics one. Such perspective refers to the simultaneous use of land for both solar production and agriculture.
The Agrivoltaic perspective
The Agrivoltaic view involves cultivating pollinator habitat on solar sites and grazing sheep. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), those actions will cover 3 million acres in the U.S. by 2030 and 6 million by 2050. On the other hand, wind turbines can also generate wildlife disruption. Globally, rotor blade strikes were estimated in 2013 to kill 140,000 to 328,000 birds annually.
In this sense, Denmark-based Statkraft has spent $4.5 million researching reducing bird strikes for more than ten years. The Company uses GPS to radar to video monitoring tools. The utility has also invested in ultraviolet technologies, invisible to human eyes but visible to birds to keep them away from turbines.
One of the most scrutinized issues has been the recycling and disposal of outmoded PV panels and wind turbine blades. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, there could be as much as 8 million metric tons of total solar panel waste by 2030 and 10 times that by 2050.
PV panels have an expected lifespan of 25-30 years, and wind turbine blades can last up to two decades. However, many of them are taken down in half that time to be replaced with newer, more powerful models. In this regard, tons of their waste have nowhere to go but landfills. For both wind and solar, their components’ materials complicate efforts to recycle.
Veolia Group analyzed its PV panels materials in the last two years, finding a mix of components tough to recycle. Nevertheless, the Company worked to develop a mechanical process to grind the massive blades to dust. In this sense, Veolia now provides the processed material to lime kilns and the cement industry as a fuel source.