By Bethany Schneekloth
Solar and wind power have become the staple in examples of renewable energy. They are heralded as the most sufficient for the nation, but ask yourself what happens to the parts when they break down. The number of solar panels and wind turbines in our area is growing, making this an important question that needs an answer.
Solar panels have been popping up more and more in the south- eastern part of Minnesota where we live; that is all mindset with no harm intended. Now ask yourself if you know where they are disposed of when they have reached the end of their lifetime, with what metals and chemicals they contain. With all solar panel manufacturers in the United States, only a few have an in-house recycling and disposal program.
The usefulness of a solar panel is roughly 30 years. Soon those installed 20 years ago will need to be decommissioned. With no national policies to regulate their disposal, the states and companies are left to figure it out. First Solar is the only manufacturer in the U.S. to have in-house recycling and disposing system, limited to only their products. The materials used within the panels range from silicon to aluminum frames, each disposed of and recycled in their way.
Landfills are, as most people know, not the best for the disposal of many items. The glass in solar panels attributes most of the waste produced, having limited reusable ways due to metal within them. The total amount of recyclable aluminum they pull from the panel systems amounts to $1.25 to $1.75; the other materials – silicon, silver, and copper, are not recycled in the United States.
A solution to this problem would be to begin implementing national regulations for the decommissioned panels. The current price of recycling is about $20-$30 for one solar panel; whilst cutting the cost may seem like a good idea at first, but may lead to other problems. Problems would be companies letting workers go to keep their profit, or the companies cutting corners and costs to keep that profit. Like many things, this will take time, but if we leave it until the last minute, it will become worse.
Wind power is up there, with solar power in the ranks of renewable energy. The giant white structures tower over many areas of the United States and other countries and are commonplace. With their large size comes large amounts of waste that accumulate over the years. Where do the decommissioned blades and parts go when they are no longer serviceable?
The wind turbine blades are composed of composite glass with carbon materials, more commonly known as fiberglass, meaning that they are not as valuable. Compared to carbon and steel, they will not make as much revenue when recycled; they are being disposed of in a not-so-green way. The blades themselves are longer than some airplane wings, so where are they being buried if not in regular landfills?
In Casper, Wyo., one of the few landfills that take the blades, there are around 870 blades already in the ground. These blades weigh 36 tons each and need to be dismantled, creating extra time and the amount of energy burned to go up. The wind turbine blades have been constructed to be able to withstand hurricane-force winds; they are not easily broken down. Other landfills take the blades, and one of them in Sioux Falls, S. Dak.
With all of these pitfalls in this industry, companies are combatting the surge of waste. The Global Fiberglass Solutions company with manufacturing plants in Texas and Iowa is making re-meltable pellets from the fiberglass of wind turbine blades. This is a patented process for the company that was many years in progress, but it will only do so much.
Both methods of creating renewable energy have their advantages and disadvantages that impact the environment in different ways. In light of this past week’s winter storms down in Texas, it is clear that these sources of energy are not always reliable. It will be quite some time before we will have this energy problem figured out, being careful not to go too far one way or the other.
Bethany Schneekloth is a student at Mabel-Canton High School. She is one of nine area students participating in the Journal Writing Project, now in its 22nd year.