Recycling Renewables: A special series
- Why we need to recycle clean energy technologies — and how to do it
- Take a look inside a lithium-ion battery, solar panel and wind turbine
- EV battery recycling is costly. These 5 startups could change that
- Four smart ideas for keeping wind turbine blades out of landfills
- New startup aims to recycle 95% of high-value content from solar panels
- How to prepare for the coming flood of used EV batteries
- Podcast: Get ready for the battery recycling boom
- Podcast: What to do with clean energy waste?
- Chart: China is trouncing the US on battery recycling
- 15 companies working to recycle wind turbines, solar panels and batteries
- 6 big takeaways from Canary Media’s Recycling Renewables series
- The US lags on EV battery recycling. Can California lead the way?
- Video: Watch Canary Media reporters talk recycling renewables
Canary Media thanks Solarcycle for its support of the Recycling Renewables series.
In the past decade, solar panels, wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries have boomed in production volume and plummeted in price. That’s enabled many countries to accelerate the transition to lower-carbon electricity. It’s also helped electric vehicles become more mainstream, an important step in the push to decarbonize transportation.
To keep global warming from reaching catastrophic levels, production of these clean energy technologies will need to be scaled up by orders of magnitude in the coming decade.
Making all of this happen should be the first priority of anyone who cares about the fate of life on earth. But there’s another pressing priority that can’t be overlooked: A lot of the equipment that will make this crucial transition possible — and the valuable materials used to make it — could end up in landfills.
If it’s not reused and recycled, this waste could wreak havoc on ecosystems and communities. It could also mean missing out on an accessible source of critical raw materials like lithium and cobalt, which are costly to mine and often produced in environmentally and socially harmful ways.
Today, the volume of panels, turbine blades and batteries nearing the end of their lives is relatively low. But that’s changing fast. Now is the time to ramp up recycling capacity so that it matches the growth of clean technologies that will occur over the next few decades.
By 2030, the U.S. is expected to be decommissioning about 1 million metric tons of solar panels per year, said Maria Curry-Nkansah, head of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s circular-economy strategic initiative for advanced energy materials technology — and across the globe, the figure will be about 8 million metric tons a year. The numbers only grow from there. The worldwide total of PV waste could increase nearly tenfold by 2050, to 78 million metric tons, according to the International Energy Agency.
Likewise, the roughly 600,000 metric tons of lithium-ion battery waste expected from the first generation of EVs by 2025 is set to grow to 11 million metric tons worldwide by 2030, according to the World Economic Forum. And the volume of wind turbine blades reaching end of life could hit 12 billion metric tons by 2050, according to a 2020 study in the Journal of Sustainable Metallurgy.
So what can we do today to avoid generating these gargantuan volumes of waste in the future? Experts say the only solution is an aggressive and coordinated effort to set government regulations and establish private-sector investments that enable the recycling of clean energy technologies at massive scale.
It’s important to point out that there’s a categorical difference between the raw materials of the clean energy economy and those of the fossil-fueled economy. Renewable energy and energy-storage systems don’t burn an irreplaceable resource and cause irreparable harm to the climate and environment in the process. Instead, they capture inexhaustible sources of energy — sunlight and wind.
But to be considered truly sustainable, these industries need to restructure themselves in ways that allow their products to be recycled at the end of their lives. That’s going to require government mandates to limit their wanton disposal, along with effective regulatory structures to incentivize the private sector to invest in businesses and infrastructure to collect, transport, disassemble, refine, reuse and remanufacture their components.
It’s also going to demand a lot of innovation, from new technologies for breaking down and reconstituting the components of solar panels, turbine blades and lithium-ion battery cells, to novel approaches to designing products that make their recycling simpler and safer at the end of their lives.
The underlying challenge of raw materials
To meet the skyrocketing U.S. and global demand for these clean energy technologies, supplies of key materials must expand dramatically. The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts a quadrupling of total mineral demand for clean energy technologies by 2040 under its Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), the pathway it prescribes for keeping global temperature rise well under 2 degrees Celsius. The projected demand trajectory for minerals used to make EVs and batteries is particularly dramatic — a greater than thirtyfold increase from today to 2040, with lithium demand growing more than fortyfold in the same timeframe.
Canary Media thanks Solarcycle for its support of the Recycling Renewables series.
It’s easy to recycle a glass bottle or a piece of aluminum foil. They’re made of single materials. But a solar panel or battery is much more difficult; they’re made of numerous substances mashed tightly together in different ways. So it’s a real technical challenge to extract components and refine constituent materials at high enough purity that they can be reused. To get a feel for just how hard recycling them can be, let’s take a closer look at the main materials and configurations commonly used in a lithium-ion battery, a solar panel and a wind turbine.
Canary Media thanks Solarcycle for its support of the Recycling Renewables series.
The public is finally buying electric vehicles in substantial numbers, a pivotal step toward decarbonizing transportation. But without changes to how the industry does business, the surge in EVs could eventually leave the planet awash in the batteries that make them run.
Lithium-ion batteries already power phones, laptops, scooters, e-bikes and toothbrushes. But global battery manufacturing is growing rapidly to serve the newly voracious demand for electric cars, which hit a record 8.6 percent of global new car sales in 2021.
Now that the growth trajectory is clear for battery-powered cars, the clean energy industry needs to figure out how to deal with the ensuing waste. Lithium-ion batteries contain materials that shouldn’t be dumped in a landfill, and old batteries can catch fire if they aren’t cared for properly. But so far, battery recycling technology and processing capacity have lagged far behind manufacturing.
It’s possible to pay someone to cart off old batteries and dispose of them as a hazardous waste stream. But this adds cost to the battery life cycle. That’s because traditional methods for breaking down batteries, including pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy, are expensive and time-consuming and don’t recapture all of the valuable material inside.
Wind energy projects are set to soar this century as countries shift away from fossil fuels, bringing tens of thousands of turbines to mountain ridges, fields and coastal waters around the world. These whirling devices are seen as key to curbing greenhouse gas emissions and producing the clean electricity that’s needed to power homes, factories and vehicles.
Yet the surge in wind-blown turbines is posing a new challenge, one the industry is just starting to grapple with: What to do with the towers and blades once they reach the end of their useful lives?
For most companies, the easiest and cheapest way to deal with spent turbine parts is to bury them in landfills. Wind industry experts say the current scale of turbine waste is minuscule, particularly when compared to the monsoon of household garbage and construction debris that countries generate every day. But that won’t always be the case. In the United States, ambitious projections for renewable energy development envision 3,000 gigawatts of cumulative wind power capacity in 2050 — more than 20 times the amount installed today.
Globally, the volume of wind turbine blades reaching end of life could hit 12 billion metric tons in 2050, according to researchers at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory. All those retired turbines will pose a problem for communities and the environment if they continue to wind up in the dump.
The pending pileup has a lot to do with how wind turbines are made. About 85 percent of turbine components — including steel towers and copper wiring — can be reused or recycled once the three-pronged machines cease twirling. But the blades themselves are built with materials designed to endure two to three decades of spinning around in high winds and enduring lighting strikes, bird collisions and other potential assaults from the surrounding environment. Lightweight glass or carbon fibers are embedded in plastic resins, forming sturdy shells that can stretch as long as the wings of jumbo passenger jets. This ultimately makes blades harder to break for other uses.
With the Auxin tariff threat on pause, the U.S. solar industry is set to return to its usual torrid pace of installing millions of panels each year. This is good news for those who want to see the Biden administration meet its target of transitioning the nation’s electrical grid to 100 percent renewable power by 2035.
But there is one foreseeable downside: All of those solar panels have finite 25- to 30-year life spans and are difficult and expensive to recycle. Currently, 90 to 95 percent of decommissioned solar panels in the U.S. are sent to landfills when they reach the end of their useful life.
The enormity of the numbers is difficult to fathom, but if the current trajectory holds, the solar module waste stream in the U.S. alone could amount to a cumulative 1 million metric tons by 2030 and 10 million metric tons by 2050, according to a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. This means that there are hundreds of millions, soon to be billions, of panels that must be responsibly dealt with if the solar industry can ever hope to be considered “green.”
So far, few entrepreneurs and investors have stepped up to confront the looming wave of renewable energy waste.
But Solarcycle, a startup that launched earlier this year, says it has found a way to tackle the problem. The solar panel recycling company claims that its technology allows it to extract 95 percent of the high-value metals contained in solar photovoltaic panels such as silver, silicon, copper and aluminum and to either repurpose them or return them to the supply chain.
Canary Media thanks Solarcycle for its support of the Recycling Renewables series.
Last year, battery-powered cars made up 8.6 percent of global new car sales, a trend that is only set to continue as prices come down and their technology improves. The White House wants half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 to be electric; Europe is advancing a ban on sales of combustion cars by 2035, while California has an executive order with the same target.
This wholesale shift to clean vehicles is a crucial step toward tackling planet-warming emissions, but it will also generate tremendous amounts of used lithium-ion batteries — and countries need to plan for that or suffer the consequences.
I recently wrote about the technical innovations driving down the costs of battery recycling and scaling up capacity. But better techniques, however promising, are not enough to ensure robust reuse and recycling of lithium-ion batteries. That’s because a comprehensive recycling system requires coordination among numerous parties, including carmakers, mechanics, power plant developers, transportation and logistics specialists, and hazardous-waste disposal firms. That won’t happen on its own, but it could be spurred by government intervention to give these industries clarity on where they should compete and innovate.
“You have a product that, at its end of life, is considered hazardous waste, and you have to figure out what to do with this hazardous waste,” said Alissa Kendall, an industrial ecologist and battery recycling expert based at the University of California, Davis. “Right now, we don’t have any policies for managing these technologies at their end of life.”
Done right, recycling policy could establish a clear pathway for electric vehicle batteries to get reused and eventually recycled, safely and economically returning their critical minerals to the supply chain for new batteries. This would support fledgling markets for battery recycling and the reuse of lightly used batteries. Done wrong, old batteries will slip through the cracks, potentially harming people and the environment, and forcing manufacturers to harvest even more new material from the earth at great cost to local landscapes and the climate.
Recycling startups insist that lithium-ion recycling is becoming more profitable, but it still costs manufacturers money to collect battery packs and safely send them to recycling facilities. Without guidance on who’s responsible for spent batteries, manufacturers may not take the initiative.
So far, state and federal efforts to develop and implement effective EV battery recycling policies have been almost nonexistent in the U.S. California is furthest along in formulating a strategy. In 2018, it passed AB 2832, which created an advisory group to study how to ensure “as close to 100% as possible of lithium-ion batteries in the state are reused or recycled at end-of-life in a safe and cost-effective manner.” The advisory group published its draft report this year, and lawmakers could turn those suggestions into legislation as soon as next year’s session.
“We clearly need a plan for these batteries once they reach their end of life, including looking at ways to use them as energy storage to power our homes,” Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), who sponsored the 2018 legislation, noted in an email to Canary Media. “I appreciate the work of the advisory group and will keep in mind their policy recommendations later this year when I craft my 2023 legislative package.”
Today, the number of battery packs in need of disposal is relatively small because we’re still in the early days of EV adoption. But the surge of spent batteries is coming, whether the U.S. is ready for it or not.
Here are four sensible policy ideas that, if implemented, would eliminate hurdles to battery recycling and give a significant boost to the nascent industry.
1. Decide who’s responsible for spent EV batteries
Someone needs to be held accountable for making sure lithium-ion batteries don’t end up abandoned to rust or catch fire. The Occam’s razor approach would be for the government to tell auto manufacturers that if they bring a battery into this world, they must dispose of it, a principle known as “extended producer responsibility.” The European Union went this route with its proposed battery regulation, which is still winding its way through the bureaucracy.
Automakers tend to bristle at this approach because they say forcing them to pay for disposal will raise the price of EVs. Setting aside what this means for corporate profits, EVs are already too expensive for many consumers, so it’s possible that a rule like this could further impede the mass adoption of low-carbon transportation. The price tag of EVs raises particular equity concerns for jurisdictions that are pushing for widespread EV adoption by their constituents.
But manufacturers aren’t the only ones who object to the idea of funneling used batteries through auto manufacturers. The automobile dismantling and recycling industry also has something to say about it. That’s the collection of companies that break down and recycle some 4 million vehicles annually in the U.S. and Canada, finding new homes for the functioning pieces and recycling the leftover metals. The industry generates $32 billion in sales annually, according to the Automotive Recyclers Association industry group.
“They are effective at wringing out value from these end-of-life vehicles,” Kendall said.
The dismantling industry is already facing seismic shifts as cars transition from combustion engines to electric drivetrains, drastically changing the roster of parts that can be extracted from vehicles. If the U.S. follows Europe’s lead and makes auto manufacturers responsible for their old EV batteries, that could cut the dismantlers out of the most valuable piece of a used EV: the battery pack.
When California’s advisory group voted on a series of different ideas, a strong manufacturer takeback policy garnered 67% support.
But the group — which included representatives from car companies, salvage firms, battery recyclers and more — voted 93% in favor of a hybrid approach to assigning responsibility. In this version, dismantlers can take ownership of a used EV, but doing so makes them responsible for the proper disposal of battery packs. If no licensed dismantler claims a particular battery pack, the manufacturer has to step in as a last resort.
This proposal also creates a “core exchange” modeled after an existing nationwide system for trading in old engines and car parts. When mechanics remove a battery pack, they must prove the old battery is properly disposed of. The exchange system tracks those packs, like a fancier version of the glass-bottle deposit at grocery stores.
“Both policies also require further consideration to define what constitutes ‘proper recycling’ and how it should be verified,” the advisory group report states.
2. Streamline diagnosis and transportation
After determining whose job it is to make sure batteries get recycled, governments could do a lot of little things to make the whole process run smoother, starting with how the batteries are transported from one place to another.
When a pack is removed from an electric car, it’s not clear to the casual observer just how beat up the battery is. Severely degraded batteries could become a fire hazard, while gently used ones typically don’t pose a threat. But since it’s impossible to know the battery’s state just from looking at the thing, all used batteries are considered hazardous by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Hazardous materials incur extra costs to ship safely. Damaged batteries need even more specialized and expensive shipping techniques. Studies have found that the transporting of batteries alone accounts for 40 to 60 percent of battery-recycling costs. And those costs compound if batteries need to be picked up and sent somewhere for examination, and then sent somewhere else to be repurposed or recycled.
“If you have to ship batteries to get diagnostics, that’s an enormous additional cost,” Kendall said. “Wouldn’t it be great if, as soon as a battery came out of a car, you knew exactly what to do next with it?”
Policymakers could require that manufacturers display a battery pack’s “state of health,” which is the metric for how much capacity remains. If a pack still has 90% of its original capacity, it could be used in another car. If it has 80% or less, it may be better suited for duty in a power plant, storing clean energy for the grid. If it’s much more degraded, it may be time for it to head to the recycling shop.
This sort of “universal diagnostic system” would be akin to the onboard diagnostics that now come standard in all cars — no matter what make or model, you can scan the car to check for faults or failures.
The trick is deciding just how much should be disclosed. California’s advisory group preferred more general battery labeling: 93% of its members supported a physical label with items like manufacturer name or cathode chemistry. Universal diagnostic systems drew considerably less support.
Any labeling scheme would benefit from federal action, as opposed to a state-by-state patchwork of policies, said Blaine Miller-McFeeley, senior legislative representative for nonprofit law firm Earthjustice.
“If you want to take a battery across state lines to recycle it, you want the standards and the labeling to be the same everywhere,” he said.
Another area for federal action is refining the transportation rules for batteries to make shipping easier without sacrificing safety. Startup KULR found a way to navigate current regulations by getting a special permit to ship batteries in its high-tech fireproof cases.
3. Encourage reuse where possible
In theory, batteries coming out of cars can perform years of extra service storing power for the grid. But assessing and calibrating second-life storage is more complicated and unpredictable than buying brand-new, warrantied batteries; it’s only worth the hassle if it’s cheap enough to justify the added effort.
B2U Storage Solutions’ project in Lancaster, California proves that this can be commercially viable at scale — it now stores up to 17 megawatt-hours, with more capacity on the way. The startup self-funded the project as a merchant power plant to demonstrate that old EV batteries could be harnessed profitably for storing clean electricity.
On The Carbon Copy podcast this week:
It’s been over three months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent shockwaves into global oil markets, causing supply constraints and skyrocketing prices. The conflict has complicated the flow of energy at a time when supply chains were already jumbled up because of Covid.
But it’s not just oil. The war is leaving its mark on all kinds of commodities, including the global supplies of minerals and metals. Geopolitical shifts are causing big spikes in the prices of lithium and nickel, two key components of the lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars.
However, this supply mess could actually be boosting a positive trend in the battery space: recycling.
Batteries are a pillar of the zero-carbon economy, but are they truly sustainable? And will technical advancements and evolving geopolitical alliances alter the battery-based economy for the better?
Our guest is Julian Spector, a senior reporter with Canary Media. Check out his latest report on five exciting startups tackling battery recycling from different angles. And check out all of Canary’s Recycling Renewables special coverage.
The Carbon Copy is a co-production of Post Script Media and Canary Media.
On the Political Climate podcast this week:
Despite remarkable breakthroughs in clean energy deployment, there has been little progress made on the thorny issue of what to do with solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and other equipment when they reach the end of their useful life.
Without proper recycling or reuse, these materials could do real harm to ecosystems and communities. Failure to effectively recycle could also threaten the long-term viability of a clean energy economy that is already facing strains in the supply of some raw materials, such as lithium and cobalt.
In this Newsflash episode, host Julia Pyper and producer Maria Virginia Olano are joined by guest Emily Burlinghaus, who has been researching clean energy recycling as a fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany. As part of Canary Media’s dedicated week of coverage on how to make clean energy cleaner, the three discuss opportunities and roadblocks in the emerging field of recycling renewable energy assets.
Listen and subscribe to Political Climate on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or pretty much wherever you get podcasts! Follow us on Twitter at @Poli_Climate.
- Canary Media: Recycling Renewables: A special series
- Canary Media: Why we need to recycle clean energy technologies — and how to do it
- Atlantic Council: As the US struggles to “green” supply chains, new EU battery regulation offers lessons
- U.S. Department of Energy: DOE Releases Action Plan For Photovoltaic Systems End-Of-Life Management
- The Carbon Copy: Get ready for the battery recycling boom
Political Climate is brought to you by FischTank PR. From PR and digital marketing to content writing, the team at FischTank helps you develop a strategy for bringing your work not only to wider audiences, but to the right audience. To learn more about FischTank’s approach to cleantech and services, visit fischtankpr.com.
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Canary Media’s chart of the week translates crucial data about the clean energy transition into a visual format. Canary thanks Natural Power for its support of this feature.
China is the global leader in recycling of lithium-ion batteries, far outpacing all other nations. As of late 2021, China had more than three times as much existing and planned lithium-ion battery recycling capacity as the U.S., according to a recent paper.
Weaning our society off of fossil fuels will require a massive buildout of the technologies that make the clean energy economy hum: solar panels, wind turbines and batteries. As this transition gains momentum, we should be planning for what to do when all this equipment starts to reach the end of its useful life. If we don’t, it could enter the waste stream in ways that are harmful to the environment.
Finding techniques and processes to recycle and repurpose this equipment will help prevent this and could also help alleviate pressures on the supplies of critical minerals used to manufacture it. As Canary Media has reported in its ongoing Recycling Renewable series, right now there are many barriers to recycling clean energy technologies, including a lack of coherent policy to guide manufacturers, as well as the expense and hassle of trying to extract useful materials from spent products.
Despite these challenges, a number of innovative startups and incumbents are venturing into the field, experimenting with novel techniques that will help make recycling clean energy technologies profitable and scalable. Here are 15 companies that are taking the lead.
- Umicore: This Belgium-based global minerals and materials processing company launched the world’s first industrial-scale lithium-ion battery recycling facility in 2011. It now recovers copper, cobalt and nickel in volumes of 7,000 metric tons per year, and it has expanded into lithium recovery as well. Umicore has inked battery recycling agreements with automakers Audi, BMW, Volkswagen and Tesla (in Europe).
- Nth Cycle: This Beverly, Massachusetts–based startup has developed an electro-extraction process to replace the pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy processes typically used to reduce batteries, solar panels and other electronic waste to their core materials. Rather than using blast furnaces and solvents and other chemicals to melt down and dissolve the “black mass” created by shredding batteries or other electronic products, Nth Cycle combines “electrowinning” processes and filtration to separate the valuable minerals in an electrically charged solution. This process is less energy- and chemical-intensive and can be used in smaller, more distributed settings.
- Ecobat: This Irving, Texas–based company is the world’s largest global recycler of lead-acid car batteries, with operations in 14 countries, 65,000 collection points and 15,000 partners. Ecobat is now applying what it has learned to the task of recycling lithium-ion batteries, with facilities in Germany and the U.K., and a research and development facility in Dallas.
- Li-Cycle: This startup went public via special-purpose acquisition company merger last year, has a deal with Ultium Cells, the battery joint venture of General Motors and LG Chem, and is planning a recycling facility near Ultium’s Ohio battery plant. It’s also working with mining giant Glencore, which invested $200 million in Li-Cycle last month.
- Redwood Materials: This battery recycling startup founded by Tesla co-founder JB Straubel raised more than $700 million from investors last year at a $3.7 billion valuation. The company is planning to invest more than $1 billion in facilities to produce battery anodes and cathode materials from recycled and“sustainably mined” materials. It collects scrap from the Panasonic battery manufacturing operation at Tesla’s gigafactory. It also has a partnership with Ford and is working with Ford and Volvo to fund the free collection of spent EV batteries in California. (Read more from Canary about Li-Cycle, Redwood and other companies recycling lithium-ion batteries.)
- Retriev Technologies: Retriev has been recycling lithium-ion batteries for two decades, making it a seasoned veteran in this relatively young industry. The company handles everything from collection and transportation to dismantling, shredding and extraction of useful materials.
- American Battery Technology Company: Alums from Tesla’s Gigafactory realized they could run battery manufacturing in reverse to dismantle batteries far more efficiently than standard practices allow for today. It’s building a precommercial facility to process 20,000 metric tons of batteries per year. If that works as planned, the next facility will be 10 times bigger.
- Ascend Elements: Cathodes are the most expensive part of a new battery, so Ascend Elements designed its process to extract old cathode materials and get them ready for duty in new cathodes. It raised $90 million last year to build out its recycling capacity.
- KULR Technology Group: Battery reuse and recycling require a more robust system for collecting and transporting old battery packs. This must be done safely to avoid fire risk, but it also increases costs. KULR tackles that problem with lightweight, fireproof casing that allows for used batteries to be transported safely without a lot of extra work.
- Enel Green Power: This company is a subsidiary of the Italian energy giant Enel Group, which develops and manages renewable power projects worldwide, including 6.6 gigawatts of wind power in the United States. Enel Green Power is partnering with the Re-Wind Network to turn old wind turbine blades into transmission towers at Enel’s Smoky Hills Wind Farm in Kansas.
- Veolia North America: The Boston-based company of multinational Veolia Group, VNA is working with General Electric to turn spent turbine blades into fodder for cement-making at a facility in Missouri. Machines shred, grind and sort the blades then send the material to cement factories, where the ground-up blades are used to produce cement or fire up the kilns.
- Makeen Power: This Danish company is designing and building a pilot plant to break down materials in wind turbine blades by exposing them to extreme heat through pyrolysis. Makeen Power is a part of DecomBlades, a consortium of turbine makers and wind farm developers led by energy giant Ørsted.
- Siemens Gamesa: One of the world’s largest turbine manufacturers, this Danish company recently developed an alternative method of manufacturing turbine blade materials that it says makes blades easier to break down once they’re no longer in service. The first RecyclableBlades will soon be installed at RWE’s Kaskasi offshore wind farm located near Germany’s North Sea coast.
- First Solar: The biggest U.S.-based solar panel manufacturer in an industry dominated by Asian competitors, First Solar is also a leader in recycling its own solar panels. The Tempe, Arizona–based company operates recycling facilities in the U.S., Germany and Malaysia, it and claims that it’s able to recover and reuse 90 percent of the semiconductor material and glass that make up those panels. These achievements have been driven by First Solar’s unique thin-film cadmium-telluride solar cell technology, which contain toxic materials.*
- Solarcycle: This Northern California–based startup has set its sights on recycling not just the aluminum and glass that make up most of a typical silicon solar panel’s weight, but also the more valuable copper, silver and silicon that are harder to extract. The company has developed an electrostatic separation process, which separates small particles by mass in a low-energy charged field, to achieve this. It has raised $6.6 million in venture funding from investors including SolarCity founders Peter and Lyndon Rive and Sunpower co-founder Tom Dinwoodie, and landed leading U.S. residential solar installer Sunrun as a customer. (Check out Canary’s recent profile of Solarcycle.)
*Correction: This article originally stated that First Solar modules cannot be disposed of in landfills. According to the company, its end-of-life modules can be disposed of in landfills. We regret the error.
Solarcycle is supporting Canary Media’s Recycling Renewables series. Our editorial team retains full authority over editorial content and news coverage decisions; we do not accept input from donors and supporters.
Canary Media thanks Solarcycle for its support of the Recycling Renewables series.
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.)
As Canary Media reported in its recent Recycling Renewables series, the increasing adoption of EVs around the globe is a huge milestone in the effort to decarbonize transportation. But it brings with it another problem that the world needs to prepare for: mounting EV battery waste. Technical innovation is starting to drive down the costs of lithium-ion battery recycling, but government intervention is necessary to catalyze a robust system for reusing and recycling the batteries.
Currently, the U.S. has no federal recycling mandate or recycled content requirements for lithium-ion batteries. While some regulations — such as the Department of Transportation’s Hazardous Materials Regulations and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act — govern the transportation and disposal of hazardous materials (which lithium-ion batteries are sometimes considered to be), implementation and enforcement vary widely across states. Together, these two factors — a lack of federal leadership on recycling and a patchwork approach to regulating lithium-ion batteries — have inhibited U.S. progress on sustainable and secure battery life-cycle management.
California has taken aim at these problems by launching a first-of-its-kind group to gather stakeholder feedback and recommend policies around lithium-ion battery life-cycle management for electric vehicles. Assembly Bill 2832, which was passed in 2018, created the Lithium-Ion Car Battery Recycling Advisory Group to craft recommendations “aimed at ensuring that as close to 100 percent as possible of lithium-ion vehicle batteries in the state are reused or recycled at end-of-life in a safe and cost-effective manner.” Over the past two and a half years, 19 members representing automakers, recyclers, government agencies, civil society groups and other entities have worked to identify barriers to this goal and researched different policies that could facilitate the reuse, repurposing and recycling of batteries. The group submitted its policy recommendations to the legislature in May 2022.
Proposals that received strong support from the advisory group include measures to facilitate the reuse of EV batteries, improve access to information about individual batteries (such as their chemistry, condition and origins), reduce costs of battery transport, and develop collection and sorting infrastructure. The recommendations could make their way into California’s 2023 legislative session, and if some of them are adopted, they may provide a useful roadmap for the rest of the country on how to manage and recycle lithium-ion batteries at the end of their useful lives.
But California — and the U.S. more broadly — still faces an uphill battle when it comes to aligning with global standards for battery recycling. Even if fully implemented, the group’s recommendations do not bring the state in line with other jurisdictions such as the European Union, where stricter legislation may penalize entities that fail to comply.
The EU is currently considering a new Batteries Regulation. Among other things, it would require that companies recycle 70% of the average weight of lithium-base batteries and recover high levels of critical metals and minerals from batteries (specifically, 95% of cobalt, 95% of copper, 90% of lithium, and 95% of nickel) by 2030. It would also mandate that many new batteries (including those in EVs) must be produced with minimum levels of recycled content (20% for cobalt; 85% for lead; 10% for lithium; and 12% for nickel) by 2035. A maximum life-cycle carbon footprint threshold (still to be determined) is expected to go into effect in 2027.
The regulation also proposes a battery passport — a “digital twin” of each battery that comes onto the market in the EU. It would include information about the battery, as well as key metrics like carbon footprint, recycled content and human-rights conditions across the supply chain, from raw material mining to recycling at end of life. The passport would also include third-party audits of mining sites for human-rights abuses and environmental degradation. Despite some concerns about whether there are enough old batteries to meet the requirements for recycled content in new batteries and other challenges in achieving the targets, European industry is broadly supportive of these measures, and the regulations are expected to pass into law by the end of the year.
California’s battery advisory group evaluated proposals like those in the EU Batteries Regulation — and for the most part, rejected them. The problem with this is that California may set a U.S. precedent for battery manufacturing that does not meet global standards. As a result, American automakers and battery manufacturers could face escalating penalties when exporting to the EU, which is the world’s second-largest market for EV sales. Top-ranked China, meanwhile, has already enacted measures to promote battery labeling and recyclability-by-design principles. The Chinese government has also launched a battery traceability management platform akin to the EU’s proposed battery passport. Such efforts will further bolster the market position of Chinese manufacturers, which already provide batteries for U.S. and European automakers such as Tesla, Volkswagen and BMW.
There are plenty of legitimate arguments to be made against the EU’s proposals. By mandating minimum recycled content and recoverability requirements based on existing chemistries, the EU regulations could deter research into new batteries made from materials that are more sustainable and widely available but less valuable for recycling. Likewise, if California — or the U.S. as a whole — were to implement high recycled content mandates too quickly, it might result in the need to import recycled content from somewhere else, which would defeat sustainability goals and perpetuate reliance on foreign markets for battery supplies.
But certain policy and technical innovations, like the EU’s digital battery passport, could help California address key barriers to recycling raised in the state’s Advisory Group report. A battery passport could help relevant actors from miners and battery producers to automakers and recyclers securely and cost-effectively store relevant information, facilitate coordination between suppliers and producers, and improve value-chain transparency. The Advisory Group largely rejected third-party verification mechanisms and the establishment of reporting systems for retired EV batteries and recycling and recovery rates, primarily because they would incur high administrative costs. However, a standardized passport mechanism could reduce such costs over the long term and lay the groundwork for compliance with upcoming regulations like the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s proposed rules on climate-related disclosures, which will require companies to report on their Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions (the emissions directly produced by them, by their energy or electricity use, and as part of the upstream and downstream processes in their supply chains).
There is no easy path to life-cycle sustainability for the batteries that will drive the clean energy transition. California is no doubt making strides where the federal government and other state administrations have not. The state’s Advisory Group’s recommendations exceed the ambitions of other U.S. states and could potentially avert innovation roadblocks created by over-regulation. But even if California’s lawmakers opt to act on the report’s recommendations, intervention at the federal level will still be vitally important to alleviate regulatory burdens identified in the report and standardize the patchwork of state laws.
As countries in Europe and East Asia set ambitious targets for battery life-cycle sustainability, the U.S. is still just beginning the process of collecting data. First movers in the U.S. auto industry are already partnering with companies abroad that provide technical solutions for compliance requirements in Europe and elsewhere, but more must be done for the U.S. to keep pace with other EV markets around the world. An ambitious federal recycling strategy based on both California’s leadership and an evaluation of proposals from other countries would signal the Biden administration’s seriousness about addressing end-of-life safety concerns for batteries, stimulating domestic industry and aligning with international standards.
Canary Media thanks Solarcycle for its support of the Recycling Renewables series.
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