To produce and utilise clean energy we rely on things like solar panels, wind turbines, generators and batteries. Building these technologies means we need various types of materials. Some of these materials are easily accessible and in abundance such as silicon for PV panels. Many, however, are not as abundant and require extraction. These materials include cobalt and lithium for batteries, neodymium, and copper which, while might not be scarce, is used in pretty much everything from generators to batteries, and in both wind and solar energy generation.
The use of these materials; the impacts of extracting them and disposing of them is possibly the largest challenge the renewables industry faces.
Like any other device or piece of technology, solar panels and wind turbines have a life span. So do the other technologies used in renewable energy generation such as generators and, as we are all painfully aware, batteries. The life span of a solar panel or wind turbine is between 20 to 25 years and, since these are relatively new technologies, this means that we are facing a growing number of them which have reached the end of their cycle. Sending these technologies off to landfills can be problematic as some could contain harmful chemicals which can seep into the earth and into groundwater.
Naturally, a better alternative to disposal would be recycling. Just like the renewable energy sector itself, the recycling industry for renewables technology is quite young. This means that it is not economically viable at the moment and its efficiency could be vastly improved. That being said, this will likely change as the industry grows, technology improves and, most importantly, if policymakers introduce legislation around collection, recovery and recycling of renewable energy technology. We are already seeing initiatives like this in the EU which obliges any producers of PV panels supplying the EU market to also finance the cost of collection and recycling. Further research is being done to improve the efficiency and life span of such technologies.
What’s more, recycling the materials used in these products once they are no longer functional and re-utilising them for new solar panels, wind turbines, generators and so on is vital in tackling the issues associated with sourcing these precious metals and materials in the first place.
Sourcing the Materials for Renewable Energy
In order to obtain the cobalt, lithium, copper or any of the other materials used to construct the technologies needed to produce clean energy, we require other industries to extract these precious metals. The extraction of these materials generally involves mining which can be highly problematic for various reasons. Mining for these materials can have devastating impacts on the environment and the communities living on the frontlines with those mines. It is responsible for depleting water sources, destroying habitats and ecosystems, negatively affecting agriculture, contaminating air, water and soil, creating economic dependence and having negative human health impacts. Furthermore, the communities who live with the effects of mining are very often forced to do so since they are rarely ever consulted beforehand and cannot claim any form of ownership or rights to the materials being extracted from their own land.
Three Recommendations for the Renewable Energy Sector
It is hard to deny the potential and importance of the renewable energy sector. It can liberate us from dirty and finite energy sources such as coal and gas, it can create jobs (including for people currently working in the dirty industries) and will help us overcome the climate crisis. It is important, however, to be aware of the challenges associated with the renewable energy sector and tackle them instantly:
Policymakers must put the right systems and legislation in place to ensure that the materials from old solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable energy technologies are properly and responsibly recycled and reused. More research must also be done to improve the longevity of such technology.
As much as possible, new renewables products must be made from materials that have been sourced from recycling or urban mining which involves the repurposing of metal from sources such as old buildings, industries and products. When mining is required it must be done so responsibly; with appropriate environmental and social impact assessment, through consultation with frontline communities and in ways which avoid the negative impacts mentioned earlier.
Ultimately, the way we live cannot be sustained if we want to overcome the crises we face today. By simply switching to clean energy we will not tackle the fundamental flaws in our current socio-economic system which is based on the unequal distribution of wealth, energy and resources and attributes success to growth and GDP. If we attempt this we are bound to fall into the same traps further down the line. The future we design must be one which respects the limits of the environment we live in, focuses on social justice and the general wellbeing of the planet, the people and the communities we form part of.
The Author: JD Farrugia
JD has been working in project and campaign management roles since 2010, mostly within civil society but also in the private sphere, as well as the arts and culture sector. JD has an M.Sc in Environmental Management & Planning and a Bachelor's degree in Psychology, both from the University of Malta. He is currently involved in various projects related to environmental causes as well as artistic projects in Malta, North Macedonia and on a European level.