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Responsible End-of-Life Disposition for Power Equipment

Aug. 11, 2021
It is worth considering lessons learned from the past such as capturing full lifecycle costs, including the proper recycling/disposal of spent materials/equipment.

Utilities have been on the forefront of power-related technology and product development, large-scale commercialization and use for more than 100 years. In essentially all cases, the primary result has been new or improved services for customers, greater worker safety and overall advancements for society. However, in a few rare instances, there were unforeseen consequences that lingered undetected for many decades. As utilities embark on new paths, owning, operating, and facilitating customer installations of new technologies, it is worth considering lessons learned from the past such as capturing full lifecycle costs, including the proper recycling/disposal of spent materials/equipment. Lithium Ion (Li-ion) batteries and solar panels are prominent examples from our current generation of energy strategies. 

Thanks to years of hard-earned experience and a preponderance of new regulations, manufacturers, and users, including much of the public are far more aware today of the safety, health and environmental implications of products, processes, and ingredients. Material safety data sheets did not exist when communities across the country employed coal gasification in local plants to supply natural gas before pipelines were installed to deliver it. The process produced hazardous byproducts that were not always properly contained and disposed till years later. Likewise, coal ash was not treated or contained for many years until its potential hazards were understood. PCBs used as an insulating agent in many types of electrical equipment, which improved electrical safety and surely saved many lives, were not carefully managed until their carcinogenic implications and longevity in the environment came to light.  

Many utilities are advocating for and participating in the electrification of our transportation sector. Some utilities are converting their own fleets, planning on servicing commercial fleets, and investing in infrastructure. Most batteries used in electric vehicles (EVs) are Li-ion. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) estimates that by 2030, 1.6 million EV batteries will be retired annually from vehicle service. If disposed, those batteries would be considered hazardous in many jurisdictions due to their metal content, and currently there are no uniform standards as to who is responsible for the proper handling of retired batteries. California, which may have 45,000 retired batteries per year by 2027, is developing policies to ensure all EV batteries sold in the state are recycled or reused. The need for a comprehensive plan for retiring EV batteries also has come to the attention of the Biden Administration, which plans to make electrification in the transportation sector a major objective.

Some good news is manufacturer research and many DYI pilot studies indicate retiring EV batteries may have an extended service life if proper recertification programs are established, potential risks are fully understood, and liability standards adopted. EV batteries are retired from primary use after about 10 years when their cell capability declines below 80% of design. Several auto companies are already evaluating refurbishing such batteries for reuse in EVs requiring a replacement battery. Batteries not suitable for vehicle service, but capable of safely operating at a lower rating, may have a second life of five to eight years in the power sector. Once certified for duty, such batteries could be used for energy storage in a broad number of utility applications as well as commercial and residential energy storage. The widespread reuse of EV batteries has the potential to increase the value proposition of EVs as well as lower battery energy storage costs. The UCS estimates there will be 112 GWh/year of capacity available from retiring passenger EV batteries by 2030. Utilities should be helping formulate policy mechanisms for the proper reuse and disposal at end of life of EV batteries to make certain this valuable resource is managed in a responsible, equitable and sustainable way.     

End-of-life solar panels represent another potential disposal issue. Unlike batteries, there is no known second service life for retiring panels. While panels contain critical materials as defined by the Department of the Interior, including arsenic, gallium, germanium, indium, and tellurium, they also include metals such as lead, aluminum, copper, and silver, as well as cadmium and other potentially hazardous materials. As a result, solar panels are difficult and expense to recycle and evidence shows some elements, including cadmium can be leached out of solar panel fragments by rainwater in mere months.

EPRI has recommended that utilities should not dispose of solar panels in regular landfills. Few states have solar waste recycling laws and, generally, the panel owner, not the manufacturer, is responsible for end-of-life disposition. As the solar industry in the U.S. ages, there will be millions of panels requiring disposal. As major solar installation owners and beneficiaries of privately owned solar projects, utilities may wish to apply lessons learned from the past and take a leadership role in establishing standards for the proper recordkeeping and recycling/disposal of unusable solar panels.

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