For Recycling Renewables week, Canary Media examined how renewable technology manufacturers and policymakers are tackling spent batteries, solar panels and wind turbines. Each of the three industries has its own challenges and innovations, but the solutions they’re pursuing share some common threads. Here are six key takeaways from the series.
1. We need a huge buildout of renewable energy.
The existential threat of a radically altered climate means that society has to bust a move away from fossil fuels to clean energy infrastructure.
The scale of deployment to come is vast: millions more solar panels each year; a forecasted cumulative 3,000 gigawatts of wind power in the U.S. by 2050 (more than 20 times the amount installed today); and soaring numbers of lithium-ion batteries to be used in electric vehicles — global sales of which rose to 8.6 percent last year — as well as in stationary storage systems.
2. Lots of renewables will generate tons of waste.
Jeff St. John lays out in his analysis introducing the series why we need to recycle renewables: By 2030 globally, an estimated 8 million metric tons of solar panels will be coming offline; the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2030, 11 million metric total tons of lithium-ion batteries will have been discarded; and the cumulative volume of wind turbine blades hitting the end of their useful life by 2050 could reach 12 billion metric tons globally.
Recycling isn’t a cinch, though. Here’s a look inside a lithium-ion battery, solar panel and wind turbine that demonstrates how their material construction makes them tough to deconstruct.
3. Recycling clean energy technologies has economic and social benefits.
Recycling would save valuable equipment and materials from ending up in landfills.
It could also reduce demand for mining. Mining is associated with documented human-rights and environmental abuses, not only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where about 70 percent of the world’s cobalt is mined, but also in the U.S. The International Energy Agency estimates that recycling cobalt, copper, lithium and nickel could replace 10 percent of mined supply.
Recycling lithium-ion batteries would also benefit national security by creating less-concentrated mineral supply chains, as Julian Spector described on The Carbon Copy podcast. (China, by the way, is trouncing the U.S. on battery recycling, as Maria Virginia Olano reports.)
4. Innovation for recycling and reusing clean energy technologies is booming.
Maria Gallucci reports in her wind turbine blade recycling piece, for example, on how the Re-Wind network, an international team of academic researchers, in partnership with industry, is repurposing wind turbines into a pedestrian bridge in Cork County, Ireland, and is planning to use spent blades as transmission towers in the Midwest.
Eric Wesoff reports on the startup Solarcycle, which recycles solar panels by electrostatically separating out the high-value metals often left behind: copper, silicon and silver.
And to make lithium-ion battery recycling more economical, companies are trying approaches both technological and logistical, Spector reports. One company, KULR, puts batteries in something resembling a “Domino’s Pizza case,” allowing them to be transported more safely and cheaply.
5. Mandates and supportive policies are necessary for recycling to flourish.
The U.S. can look to Europe as a model for effective recycling policy. For example, the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive already requires 85 percent of the materials used in solar panels to be recycled, St. John reports.
To responsibly dispose of wind turbine blades, France, Germany and Belgium require, or are considering requiring, developers to have end-of-use plans for new wind projects, Gallucci reports. And for spent lithium-ion batteries from EVs, the EU plans to hold manufacturers responsible for disposal. (Olano dives deeper into Europe’s recycling policies on the Political Climate podcast.)
U.S. policy is virtually nonexistent. When it comes to solar, only Washington state has passed a law that requires manufacturers to pay to recover and recycle their spent panels. But, St. John reports, implementation of that law has been delayed for years.
California is considering policy options for recycling EV lithium-ion batteries, Spector details, including allowing independent salvagers to harvest a battery’s valuable materials. Other percolating policy ideas include implementing a diagnostic system to assess how much juice a waning battery still has — so they can be reused for grid storage, for example — and making used batteries easier to buy.
6. Recycling needs to be part of a broader strategy that supports a circular economy.
Making renewables more sustainable means taking into account how they’re designed from the start and how they can be reused without needing to break them down into their components. For example, Gallucci reports that Siemens Gamesa is tweaking the chemistry of its wind turbine blades to make them easier to recycle.
St. John reports on how researchers at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory are working to make solar panels easier to disassemble and, for batteries, leaving battery cathodes intact — rejuvenating them, rather than shredding or melting them for scrap. That process of “direct recycling,” or remanufacturing components, leads to big savings in energy and waste.
Don’t miss: Canary’s Gallucci, Spector and St. John discuss their reporting for the series — what stood out to them and whether it left them feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the future of recycling renewables.
Solarcycle is proud to support Canary’s Recycling Renewables series. Solarcycle offers solar asset owners a low-cost, eco-friendly, comprehensive process for retiring solar systems. We pull out valuable metals such as silver, silicon and aluminum and have the technology to recycle 95% of panels currently in use. Follow Solarcycle on LinkedIn as we ramp up to meet this pivotally important challenge at giga-factory scale.
Alison F. Takemura is staff writer at Canary Media.