Outdated Solar Panels, Wind Turbines, Electric Car Batteries Will Clog Landfills With Hazardous Waste According To New Report
A general view shows the photovoltaic solar pannels at the power plant in La Colle des Mees, Alpes de Haute Provence, southeastern France, on April 17, 2019. - The 112,000 solar panels cover an area of 200 hectares with a total capacity of 100MW. (Photo by GERARD JULIEN / AFP) (Photo credit should read GERARD JULIEN/AFP via Getty Images)
GERARD JULIEN/AFP via Getty Images

As American policymakers seek to encourage the expansion of renewable energy sources, researchers expressed concern that outdated solar panels, wind turbines, and electric car batteries will clog landfills with dangerous materials.

A Harvard Business Review report explained that Americans are turning to solar power due to federal tax benefits and rising solar panel efficiency. One side effect, however, is that Americans will have reason to toss their solar panels for updated models — a reality that will clog landfills with hazardous waste such as cadmium and lead.

As the analysis explains:

Economic incentives are rapidly aligning to encourage customers to trade their existing panels for newer, cheaper, more efficient models. In an industry where circularity solutions such as recycling remain woefully inadequate, the sheer volume of discarded panels will soon pose a risk of existentially damaging proportions.

The report claims that this downside of solar power is “hidden” by bodies such as the International Renewable Energy Agency, which published official forecasts for solar waste that do not consider consumers’ willingness to upgrade solar panels before their lifecycles expire. 

Harvard Business Review explained that green energy groups’ projections may be off by a factor of fifty:

If early replacements occur as predicted by our statistical model, they can produce 50 times more waste in just four years than IRENA anticipates. That figure translates to around 315,000 metric tonnes of waste, based on an estimate of 90 tonnes per MW weight-to-power ratio.

The industry for harvesting used solar panels could create “a billion-dollar opportunity for recapture of valuable materials.”

The researchers noted that a similar threat exists for wind turbines and electric vehicle batteries. For the former, they cite an NPR report explaining that windmill parts are too durable to decay quickly and too large for most landfills to compress. For the latter, they cite a BBC article explaining that there is currently no robust recycling industry for lithium-ion batteries.

Harvard Business Review’s analysis emerges as the Biden administration seeks to encourage a national transition away from fossil fuels — for instance, by shuttering the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Twenty-one states filed a lawsuit to reopen the project, stating that President Biden ignored the constitutional process for regulating interstate commerce:

Revocation of the Keystone XL pipeline permit is a regulation of interstate and international commerce, which can only be accomplished as any other statute can: through the process of bicameralism and presentment. The President lacks the power to enact his “ambitious plan” to reshape the economy in defiance of Congress’s unwillingness to do so. To the extent that Congress had delegated such authority, it would violate the non-delegation doctrine. But Congress has not delegated such authority: It set specific rules regarding what actions the President can take about Keystone XL and when.

More recently, as President Biden and other G7 leaders touted the importance of addressing climate change, Chinese diplomats scaled back their emissions goals in order to prioritize economic growth. The move came despite the fact that U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry and China’s Special Envoy for Climate Change Xie Zhenhua signed a statement promising to jointly “tackle the climate crisis” only two months earlier.

A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to calcium as one of the hazardous wastes. The waste is cadmium. 

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