WASHINGTON, D.C.—As the world works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the infrastructure needed for wind, solar, and electric vehicles is being built at record rates. Before long, a wave of solar panels, wind turbines, and lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) will reach the end of their useful life. Nevertheless, despite growing demand for the critical minerals such as copper, lithium, silver, and cobalt used to build these renewable technologies, there seems to be little analysis about the dynamics of recycling.
The transition to a clean energy future requires a secure supply of critical minerals. Recycling is one way that society can mitigate shortages and meet the demand in the long term. However, while it may seem like the obvious solution, it faces many hurdles such as the need for advanced machinery, high energy use, and cost.
With that in mind, ConservAmerica released a new report titled Renewable Energy and Battery Waste Management in the United States. This report outlines the technical and economic hurdles facing the solar, wind, and lithium-ion battery recycling industries and discusses policy options to address them.
Some key takeaways from the report include:
- Solar panels and lithium-ion EV batteries contain hazardous material that should not be landfilled.
- Projected 2030 cumulative global waste volumes for solar panels (8 million tons), wind turbines (500 thousand tons), and LIBs (1.6 million tons) are small compared to total municipal solid waste (2021 total MSW = 2.01 billion tons).
- Less than 10 percent of solar panels and less than 5 percent of lithium-ion batteries are recycled in the U.S.
- It costs $15 to $45 to recycle solar panels versus $1 to $5 to landfill; recovered material for solar panels is worth roughly $3 per panel.
- Transportation alone accounts for roughly 40 percent of the cost to recycle electric vehicle batteries.
- Governments should consider partial recycling for solar panels and electric vehicle battery standardization to aid with battery recycling and reuse as was done for lead-acid car batteries.
The full report is available to view here.