Waste, a liability or an opportunity?

My wife and I took a recent road trip to Midland TX to visit the Petroleum Museum. We drove south on TX 385 towards Odessa and I notice an unusual amount of old rusted machine parts spewed about in the fields. There are two ways to look at all the junk; as a recording of the last 100 year history of the area or as a real eye score on the environment. Either way, that stuff should be recycled or stored in a safe place to protect the public.

This visual experience got me to thinking about all the wind turbines and solar panels we are spreading out all over our beautiful landscape. Will there be a day when they look just like all the trash along highway 385? The answer to that is a very possible ‘yes’ because the turbines and panels are evolving as new innovative designs and materials come to market. The older obsolete technology has to be done away with when new non-toxic solutions come on-line. The obvious answer would be to recycle them, but there is a hidden problem with that solution. Not all the materials are recyclable.

There are several toxic materials used to manufacture both wind turbines and solar panels. The industry is in a fast forward development cycle and has not addressed the day when these toxins have to be stored somewhere and managed. Doesn’t that sound so much like other industries where we build them now and worry about the waste later?

Big wind has a dirty little secret. I am not talking about wind installations that injure, maim, and kill hundreds of thousands of birds each year in clear violation of federal law. No, I am talking about the toxins used to manufacture these ever growing in size machines. Manufacturing wind turbines is a resource-intensive process. A typical wind turbine contains more than 8,000 different components, many of which are made from steel, cast iron, and concrete. One such component is magnets made from neodymium, a toxic silvery – white metallic element and dysprosium, a rare-earth metallic element, highly reactive and paramagnetic.

Solar energy also has a dirty little secret. Any form of energy production has its dirty side and solar is no exception. Photovoltaic modules are made from many toxic chemicals. Arsenic, cadmium telluride, hexafluoroethane, lead, and polyvinyl fluoride are just some of the chemicals used to manufacture various types of solar cells. Solar panels in use are safe but the problem comes at the beginning and end of a panel’s life cycle.

According to a Silicon Valley Toxics report, “but the toxic materials contained in solar panels will present a serious danger to public health and the environment if they are not disposed of properly when they reach the end of their useful lives.” That is a renewable problem for both wind and solar and that is a business opportunity just on the horizon (pun intended).

These toxins can be safely managed and stored some place, but where? Whoever decides to take this risk and responsibility will net some huge revenues for the surrounding communities. Carlsbad NM is benefitting from WIPP (transuranic radioactive materials), Eunice NM is benefitting from URENCO (uranium enrichment), Andrews TX is benefitting from Waste Control Specialist, (low-level radioactive waste) and all of Southeast New Mexico is benefitting from Big Oil.

WIPP is an example of how to store and manage the radioactive materials used in the many years of nuclear bomb development. However, we have not resolved what to do about all the radioactive unused uranium fuel left over from the nuclear power industry. Currently that material has been stored in large airplane crash proof canisters at every nuclear power plant facility for the last 50 years.

Back in 2007 the opportunity did present itself to Chaves County but the community at that time was not well informed and rejected the idea of temporarily storing spent nuclear fuel 40 miles east of town along the Eddy County line. Well, that opportunity went south to Andrews County TX, on the immediate border with Eunice NM.

Now there is a potential for a renewable energy toxic waste market for the Chaves County site known as Triassic Park. It’s time to look into deep borehole waste management.

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