Electric vehicle batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines result in a massive amount of waste and pollution. China is responsible for half of the total electric vehicles in the world—a number that is growing rapidly. About half of its retired batteries are not disposed in an environmentally sound way, causing significant waste and pollution problems detailed below. Batteries can be recycled but the cost is high, as it is with solar panels, which can contain hazardous materials. Most solar panels end up in landfills as do wind turbines, whose large blades are a major factor in their disposal. The United States does not have a policy for recycling these green technologies, which means that U.S. landfills can expect to see a massive increase in disposed materials from them as President Biden seeks to implement his net-zero carbon plan for all U.S. energy by 2050.
Battery Waste and Pollution
China is a major market for electric vehicles. According to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, by the end of May 2021, the number of electric vehicles in China is estimated to be 5.8 million, accounting for about half of the total number in the world. Due to favorable incentives compared to petroleum vehicles, the number of electric vehicles in China increased 17 percent between 2014 and 2020, reaching 1.37 million.
Accompanying the production and sale of new electric vehicles is the rapid development of the battery industry and the massive increase in retired batteries. The service life of new electric vehicle batteries is about 5 to 8 years, meaning batteries need to be recycled or disposed of in that time frame. In 2020, the cumulative retired batteries in China reached 200,000 tons (about 25-gigawatt hours) and is expected to increase to 780,000 tons (about 116-gigawatt hours) by 2025—a multiple of almost 4 in just 5 years. Over half of those retired batteries are not recycled properly and instead are sold to small factories at high prices, who are not expected to dispose of them in an environmentally sound fashion.
According to Professor Wu Feng at Beijing Institute of Technology, “A 20-gram cell phone battery can pollute three standard swimming pools of water, and if abandoned on the land, can pollute 1 square kilometer of land for about 50 years.” Compared to cell phone batteries, the pollution caused by the batteries of electric vehicles is far greater. Electric vehicle batteries contain cobalt, manganese, and nickel, which do not degrade on their own. Manganese, for example, pollutes the air, water, and soil, and more than 500 micrograms per cubic meter in the air can cause manganese poisoning.
Another major source of pollution in lithium-ion batteries is the electrolyte. The lithium hexafluorophosphate in the electrolyte is hydrolyzed in the air to produce phosphorus pentafluoride, hydrogen fluoride, and other harmful substances, which is a major threat to soil and water resources. Phosphorus pentafluoride is a strong irritant to human skin, eyes, and mucous membranes, and is also a very reactive compound that hydrolyzes in humid air to produce toxic and corrosive white fumes of hydrogen fluoride.
Li Yongwang, general manager of Synfuels China, indicated that the batteries of electric vehicles are likely to cause far more pollution than the exhaust pollution of petroleum vehicles because exhaust pollution can be controlled, while the cost of recycling electric vehicles is high and difficult. Once the total volume of electric vehicles reaches 10 percent of the total number of vehicles, major pollution problems are expected to be encountered. If the batteries are not properly handled during the recycling, dismantling, and processing stages, fires, explosions, heavy metal pollution, and organic emissions can result.
In 2020, the cumulative installed capacity of batteries in China reached 63.6-gigawatt hours, up 2.3 percent. According to Everbright Securities, from 2020 to 2060, the cumulative demand for lithium batteries will reach 25 terawatt-hours. Since 1-gigawatt hour of battery corresponds to 600 tons of lithium carbonate, the demand for lithium carbonate is expected to reach 15 million tons.
Disposal of electric vehicle batteries is a major problem and not all countries have adequately dealt with the problem, including the United States.
Similar to electric vehicle batteries, the cost of solar panel recycling is high, resulting in solar panels ending up in landfills. It costs an estimated $20 to $30 to recycle one solar panel, which compares to a cost of $1 to $2 for sending that same panel to a landfill.
Solar panels are mostly made of glass, which has low value as a recycled material, but they also have small amounts of silicon, silver, and copper as well as heavy metals (cadmium, lead, etc.) that some governments classify as hazardous waste. Hazardous waste can only be transported at designated times and via select routes. Because solar panels are delicate and bulky, specialized labor is required to detach and remove them to avoid their shattering and polluting local areas.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)’s official projections claim that “large amounts of annual waste are anticipated by the early 2030s” and could total 78 million metric tons by 2050 based mostly on a 30-year life cycle for the solar panels. According to the Harvard Business Review, the volume of solar waste is expected to surpass that of new installations by 2031. By 2035, discarded solar panels could outweigh new units sold by 2.56 times, increasing the levelized cost of solar energy, a measure of the overall cost of an energy-producing asset over its lifetime. According to the Harvard Business Review, the levelized cost of solar could be four times the current projection when solar waste is factored into the calculation.
The U.S. government does not have a PV recycling policy and as such most solar waste ends up in landfills after cables and aluminum frames are removed. States have not been addressing the problem adequately, either. First Solar is the only U.S. solar panel manufacturer that has a recycling program, which applies only to its own products. The company has a global capacity of two million panels per year.
Decommissioning wind turbines includes the removal of all physical material and equipment related to the project to a depth of about 48 inches. Most of the concrete foundations used to anchor the wind turbines, however, are as deep as 15 feet. The concrete bases are hard to fully remove, and the rotor blades contain glass and carbon fibers that give off dust and toxic gases. While most (90 percent) of a turbine can be recycled or be sold to a wind farm in Asia or Africa, researchers estimate the United States will have more than 720,000 tons of blade material to dispose of over the next 20 years, a figure that does not include newer, taller higher-capacity wind turbines.
Wind turbine blades are made of a tough but pliable mix of resin and fiberglass—similar to what spaceship parts are made from. Decommissioned blades are difficult and expensive to transport. They can be anywhere from 100 to 300 feet long and must be cut up on-site before getting trucked away on specialized equipment to a landfill that may not have the capacity for the blades. Landfills that do have the capacity may not have equipment large enough to crush them. One such landfill cuts the blades into three pieces and stuffs the two smaller sections into the third, which is cheaper than renting stronger crushing machines.
In Minnesota, Xcel Energy estimates conservatively that it will cost $532,000 (in 2019 dollars) to decommission each of its wind turbines—a total cost of $71 million to decommission the 134 turbines in operation at its Noble facility. Decommissioning the Palmer’s Creek Wind facility in Chippewa County, Minnesota, is estimated to cost $7,385,822 for decommissioning the 18 wind turbines operating at that site, for a cost of $410,000 per turbine.
Few countries have dealt with policies for decommissioning green technologies.Including the cost of recycling can increase the lifetime cost of a green technology substantially as the Harvard Business Review concluded for solar panels. If the cost of electricity is four times its current estimate as the Harvard Business Review suggests, Americans should know that before the nation plunges head-long into deploying it as a principal source of energy.
If President Biden is serious about his net-zero carbon plans first for the generating sector and then for the entire U.S. energy system, he needs to address the waste and pollution problems resulting from these technologies or the United States will be faced with overflowing landfills and taxpayers will be paying billions and maybe trillions to fix the problem. In order for these technologies to live up to their proponents’ claims of their environmental cleanliness, policymakers should not continue to ignore this looming and real environmental problem. It appears, however, that in his quest to move towards “green energy,” it may be easier for Biden to spend the federal government’s money resulting in hidden future costs that the American taxpayer will have to foot rather than confront the problem.