I was delighted to see a news item recently in the American Nuclear Society Nuclear Cafe reporting on an article discussing the waste generated by renewable energy systems. Of course, I'm not delighted because there is waste from renewable energy systems! Rather, I am delighted that the problem is beginning to be recognized. This is a topic that I've addressed several times in past blogs, but I've always felt that the issue wasn't getting the attention that is needed, and that my voice was a lonely voice in the wilderness.
Unfortunately, the terminology that has developed around energy sources has led to a widespread belief that renewable energy sources are "clean" because they generate no emissions when they produce energy. Lost in the discussion is the fact that the production of energy is only one step in the lifecycle of any energy producing system. All energy sources require materials that need to be mined and processed, and some of the materials traditionally used for solar and wind plants may be toxic. And all power producing plants ultimately reach the ends of their lifetimes, which means that all the materials used in the construction and operation of those power plants ultimately need to be disposed of as well.
The ANS article and my previous blog detail some of the specific wastes produced by solar and wind power plants, so I will not repeat that discussion here. The only point I would add to the discussion in that article is one of volume. It is often overlooked that the distributed nature of wind and solar energy means that the systems used to extract that energy for human use have to be large and have to use a lot of materials. Getting our energy supply from the wind and the sun requires thousands and thousands of wind turbines and solar panels. Therefore, the issue is that, not only are there hazardous wastes created when we build wind and solar power plants, the volume of that waste is very large. By contrast, the amount of waste generated by a nuclear power plant is much smaller. And both radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants and hazardous wastes from other power sources may need to be sequestered for long periods of time.
The important point is to recognize that no energy source is completely "clean." Every source of energy generates some form of waste somewhere in the lifecycle of the system. It is also true that we can expect to find solutions for dealing with most of these wastes. Some of these solutions are in early stages of development, and we may need a lot more work to assure that they will be effective. And all of them will add to the costs of energy production. And, yes, all of them are likely to generate needs for places to dispose of toxic materials sometime in the future. The point is that these aspects of our energy supply need to be better recognized by everyone involved--the technical community developing these systems, the energy companies seeking to build them, the communities wishing to host them, and the general public.
Hopefully, this article will start a broader dialogue on this important issue.