Wind energy farm turbine destroyed by fire after a lightning strike. Ninety per cent of the total mass can be recycled. Photo: © Copter Ural/ Shutterstock.com
Material recovery opportunities from the clean energy sector
The exponential increase in renewable energy sources is vital, and it is important to enable the vast circularity potential of these technologies.
Many industries have pushed for the need for strategies and legislation to support recycling and recovery in the clean energy sector. Waste generation in renewable infrastructures is currently rather low, since the installations are relatively new and, generally, have not yet reached their end-of-life span. However, waste generation in this sector will undergo a dramatic increase in future. This creates a unique opportunity for the EU to anticipate the change and prepare a policy framework to apply circular economy principles to this new sector from an early stage.
The policy gap is analysed in a new report from the European Environmental Agency (EEA). It identifies key drivers and framework conditions necessary to realise opportunities and solutions for improving the circularity of renewable energy. The focus lies on the waste aspect of three main renewable energy infrastructure types: batteries for energy storage and mobility, solar PV cells and wind turbines (see figure).
When it comes to energy storage all metals used in batteries can be recycled. Cobalt and nickel could be valuable enough to make recycling profitable, depending on price levels and the amounts recoverable from batteries. Increased circularity can be supported through modular/standardised design to promote remanufacturing, and enhanced information about the content of high-impact materials.
Currently, solar panels at their end-of-life stage are processed in existing recycling plants for glass or metals. Mechanical processes are used to separate the materials. Recycling yields of up to 95% of the materials in solar panels are possible. The recycling of solar panels in the EU is regulated by the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. Solar panel waste management is therefore regulated and bound to fulfil specific recycling standards, with an 85% recovery target, 80% of which consists of reuse and recycling. This legislation is based on the extended producer responsibility (EPR) principle.
When it comes to wind turbines, 90% of the total mass of a wind turbine can be recycled. Most of the components have established recycling processes. However, wind turbine blades are more challenging to recycle. They contain complex composite materials, a combination of reinforced fibres and a polymer matrix, which boost the performance of wind turbines.
There are technologies available to recycle the composite materials in blades, and an increasing number of companies offer composite recycling services. For example, reusing composite materials for the production of concrete, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, can improve each installation’s ecological life cycle balance, help save resources and decrease emissions. However, making these technologies commercially viable will require commitment from policy makers, other composite users and the recycling industry.
Policy options and approaches that can support this are;
- Set mandatory targets for specific products, components, materials or types of waste. Targets could relate to various aspects, including material composition, recycling or collection. Targets may be set by legislation (as is the case in the EU WEEE and End-of-Life Vehicles directives), through EPR (with each EPR scheme setting specific targets) or on a voluntary basis (with industry making its own commitments).
- Place a formal ban on certain waste operations for categories such as products, components, materials or types of waste. This should be done through legislation to enable a coherent approach and a level playing field.
- Specify end-of-waste criteria and requirements for the treatment of emerging waste streams. This would facilitate recycling and the supply of secondary resources, thereby increasing circularity. This could most effectively be done at EU level.
- Introduce ecodesign criteria for specific products or components. This could be done effectively via the development of product-specific regulations, for example in the context of the EU Ecodesign Directive or other regulatory framework, to ensure common criteria and a level playing field.
- Formal design standards for specific products or components to encourage design that maximises the potential for circularity. This could include elements related to materials used, reducing hazardous content, repairability, ease of disassembly etc.
- Extended producer responsibility (EPR) for specific products, components or materials. This could be led by new or amended EU level legislation or industry could be encouraged to develop EPR on a voluntary basis. EPR would help to finance the costs of proper waste management.
- Provide fiscal incentives for measures that lead to greater circularity. Examples could include product or material taxes, tax cuts for recyclable or repairable products, reduced VAT for repair services etc. Similarly providing financial support for measures that lead to greater circularity. Examples could include grants or loans for transport, storage and treatment infrastructure.
- Support for research & development (R&D) on measures that would lead to greater circularity, such as product design, repair options, recycling technologies, infrastructure, development of markets for recycled materials etc. This would also facilitate future planning for waste, since many technologies have lifespans of many years and waste has not always been considered during their design.
- Technical training could be provided to individuals involved with the relevant technologies, to teach them how to work towards greater circularity. This could include training on repair, maintenance and disassembly of the technologies, health and safety etc.
- Finally, attention should be paid to the potential risk of externalising the high costs for recycling in Europe by exporting aged, near end-of-life batteries or electric vehicles, solar power systems or wind turbines to non-EU countries with no stringent enforcement of environmental regulations.
The CEO of WindEurope, Giles Dickson, highlighted the need for stronger recycling EU policies this summer: “Wind energy is a green technology. Sustainability is part of our DNA. That’s why we are constantly striving to further reduce our impact on the environment. A ban on landfilling wind turbine blades will help accelerate the development of sustainable recycling technologies.” He added: “We’ve already started developing cross-industry collaborations with other sectors that are working on composite recycling technologies. The right legislation will help support the creation of viable recycling value chains and to incentivise a market for recycled materials.”1
A systematic circular approach can further contribute to a sustainable future for the clean energy sector and this will both increase the efficiency of the decarbonisation and reduce the reliance on material imports. In the next few years, recycling waste materials and second-life manufacturing will become a stand-alone business model, driving job creation in the EU.
Reference: EEA, Emerging waste streams: Opportunities and challenges of the clean-energy transition from a circular economy perspective, https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/emerging-waste-streams-opportunit...
1Wind Europe, Press release 16 June 2021, https://windeurope.org/newsroom/press-releases/wind-industry-calls-for-e...
Figure: Material recovery opportunities arising annually from the clean energy sector by 2030.