Original Post by Dan O’Connell:
I noticed most discussions this week pertain to energy and regulations for the fossil fuel industries. Its probably a better focal point as our country primarily runs on fossil fuel sources. However, I instead chose a topic on renewable energy regulation. I’m not an advocate for fossil fuels, but wanted to emphasize that even with cleaner alternative sources, there are still environmental concerns that need to be hashed out. One example I found is the regulation for solar panel disposal, or, the lack of. I do realize, this concern may not be the biggest of environmental concerns when comparing against oil pipelines, coal mining, or fracking, but, there still exists potential risks and environmental impacts even from these new alternative sources. Consider where most of the panels end up now – landfills, which are known to be major sources of various types of contamination.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “green” careers (wind and solar) are expected to grow faster than any other career over the next eight years; nearly twice the rate as the next fastest career – home and personal health care providers (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). This is a direct result of not only the demand for energy production, but the demand for clean energy. The pros and cons for wind and solar have been debated for awhile and one of the cons (with solar) that we don’t often think about right away is the end-life management of the PV cells.
Angela Chen discussed in her article the challenges with solar waste because of their classification as a listed waste under RCRA and the volume of solar waste needing disposal in the coming years. By the year 2050, over 78 million tons of solar waste will need to be disposed of or recycled (Chen, 2018). With landfill space being limited already, she argues that more emphasis on legislative solutions are needed to promote recycling. Some states are taking it upon themselves to push regulatory solutions through.
The state of North Carolina, for example, has a proposed a Bill (SB 568) which requires manufactures of solar panels to create a take back system for solar wastes at the end of their life (U.S. EPA, 2019) . The concern I have with this regulation is whether passing off the problem to the manufacturer is going to be an adequate solution. I suspect that the risk and associated cost of creating a take back program would be passed onto the customers at the time of the sale. The customer would be paying for a service they need 20-30 years down the road. What happens if that manufacturer is no longer around?
The solution of recycling solar panels seems to be the best option for keeping them out of landfills. However, there is no demand for beginning a solar panel recycling business (yet) and therefore, without better regulation or the demand to recycle, the solar panels will likely continue to pile up in landfills.
California may have another solution. California proposed legislation to classify solar panels as Universal Wastes under California RCRA regulations. As Universal Wastes, California would be promoting recycling, easing some of the RCRA regulations on those that manage these wastes, and it would encourage programs for reducing the volume of solar waste going to landfills (U.S. EPA 2019).
California’s solution to the issues Chen mentions may open up more risks with easing of some regulation, but I think would be a better solution than North Carolina’s, and the current gap in (federal) regulation we have now. California’s solution seems to come full circle – creating a demand for recycling and creating ways to limit the amount of waste going to landfills much like the way RCRA intended it to be for Universal Wastes.
Chen, Angela. 2018. “More solar panels mean more waste and there’s no easy solution”. The Verge. October 25, 2018. Accessed April 29, 2020. https://www.theverge.com/2018/10/25/18018820/solar-panel-waste-chemicals-energy-environment-recyclingLinks to an external site.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. April 15, 2020. “Fastest Growing Occupations”. Accessed April 29, 2020. https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/fastest-growing-occupations.htm
U.S. EPA. August 27, 2019. “Sustainable Materials Management Web Academy Webinar: Shining the light on Solar Panel Recycling – A Status Update”. Accessed April 29, 2020. https://www.epa.gov/smm/sustainable-materials-management-smm-web-academy-webinar-shining-light-solar-panel-recycling
I agree, California’s solution is better in comparison to North Carolina’s. The bill (SB 568) is definitely problematic, considering it’s not a guarantee residential solar panel system service providers and manufacturers are going to stay in business for 20-30 years. Not only is it a major issue in terms of manufacturers being in business to recycle the panels, but it’s also a significant concern in terms of product warranty. If the service provider and manufacturer go out of business, then the warranty cannot be fulfilled. From my experience as a residential consultant, I saw an installer, financier and two service providers all go out of business. I worked for Sunrun, the largest residential company in the nation, and saw it’s difficulty monitoring existing systems and fulfilling maintenance requests as it scales. Before that, I did the project management for 37 systems with a different, small solar company in the east bay. I went into the company after the prior financier we outsourced just recently went out of business. Then, I watched one of our install companies shut down. After I left, the entire sales department split off from the executive team to form its own company. I saw a lot of instability in the industry and trust in a utility-scale community source instead. Should both California and North Carolina homeowners who care about sourcing power from a clean, renewable source be waiting for solar micro-grids to overtake the oil and gas industry instead of buying a residential system? I currently intake all my electricity from renewable sources (solar and wind mechanisms) through Monterey Bay Community Power. It’s no extra cost, I am able to support the environment, and I don’t have to worry about anything on my roof. Since the industry is still so fragile, is the risk too much for homeowners to endure?
There is no doubt utility-scale solar projects are starting to be consistently cheaper than coal and gas. In her post, Alyssa mentioned Organic Valley installed a community-scale solar system that is cost-effective. She said the large solar farms can cover up to 400 acres of land. I imagine a contract of that size would only be signed with well-established service providers and well-established manufacturers. Drawbacks of large windmill farms are the very loud noise it produces and threat to wildlife. Also, birds have been killed by flying into spinning turbine blades. Assuming California’s proposed recycling legislation is implemented in states across the nation, what may be any drawbacks of micro-grids? What happens in the case that a town’s residents disagree with the installation of wind/solar farms in a given area?