As the cost of living and eco-conscious consumers are reportedly on the rise, the renewable energy market is growing at an unprecedented rate. However, with more research and development to advance these technologies, waste from spent infrastructure is starting to mount up. Some companies are exploring ways in which spent renewable energy infrastructure can be recycled or reused to extend its lifetime and improve the sustainability of a transition to a greener future.
The Renewable Energy Market
The global renewable energy market is growing rapidly, driven by emerging environmental policies and global leadership toward net-zero economies. The solar energy market alone is expected to grow in value from US$52.5 billion in 2018 to $223.3 billion by 2026, as it is regarded as one of the most efficient sources of unconventional energy. This – coupled with the rising energy prices across the world – will surely lead to an even larger increase in the demand for renewable power sources.
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What Happens to Spent Renewable Energy Infrastructure?
As with many technologies, when various upgrades and improvements are rolled out across the renewable energy market, spent infrastructure is discarded as waste. Currently, most used renewable infrastructure is shredded or sent to landfill, and as solar panels, wind turbines, and lithium-ion batteries grow in production and tumble in price, this waste will inevitably begin to add up. Approximately 600,000 metric tonnes of lithium-ion battery waste is expected from the first generation of electric vehicles by 2025, and this is set to grow to 11 million metric tonnes worldwide by 2030.
In recent years, spent infrastructure is becoming more valuable. According to an analysis by Rystad Energy, the value of recyclable materials from solar panels will grow exponentially over the next few years, ballooning to US$2.7 billion in 2030 from just $170 million this year. This can be explained by the increase in demand, shortages of materials, and technological developments that facilitate the extraction of valuable materials found in spent infrastructure. For example, silver – which accounts for just 0.05% of the total weight of a solar panel – makes up 14% of the material value.
Mineral demand for clean energy technologies must rise by at least four times by 2040 to meet climate goals – especially when considering the uptake of electric vehicles. Thus, adopting technologies to efficiently recycle minerals is vital in terms of sustainability.
It seems that extracting and recycling these components can save money and the resources used to gather precious materials. Additionally, the materials needed to build the components – such as silver, copper, and aluminium – come from a handful of countries, and reports of human rights abuses have been rising in recent years.
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Currently, the market’s vulnerable supply chain leaves opportunities for abuse and mistreatment of power to supply a specialised demand. For example, the manufacturing of polysilicon, which is used in the production of solar panels, requires enormous amounts of energy and has been linked to labour abuses and socially harmful environments. Although research is limited, Maplecroft’s Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Index scores show that many of the countries with significant levels of solar panel production are often categorised as having ‘high’ or ‘extreme’ levels of risk.
How Can We Recycle Spent Renewable Infrastructure?
A recent unveiling of a large public art installation in Weston-Super-Mare (UK) made from a decommissioned North Sea oil rig reflects a more creative side of what we can do with spent infrastructure. Although the installation did not use renewable infrastructure, the See Monster enables visitors to walk among a waterfall and wild gardens, aiming to “inspire global conversations about reuse, renewables and the great British weather.” Harnessing the components of renewable energy infrastructure to teach the public about the importance of sustainability and the future technologies involved in supplying the modern world with green power sources is certainly an innovative way to ensure that spent infrastructure does not end up in landfills.
Image 3: The See Monster (photo credits: seamonster.co.uk)
Practical progress is also being made to utilise the recycled infrastructure. For example, Siemens Gamesa launched the world’s first recyclable wind turbine blade, marking a “milestone for the global wind industry. The company plans to install and pilot the innovative recyclable infrastructure at an offshore wind power plant in Germany. This indicates the progress that Siemens Gamesa is making towards its pledge to make all its turbines fully recyclable by 2040.
More sophisticated methods of recycling lithium-ion batteries are also emerging, which allow manufacturers to save energy and water as well as generate significantly fewer emissions during the production process. However, experts have stressed that without a government mandate to recycle, there are no economies of scale yet, and costs remain high.
As the renewables market expands rapidly, the industry will surely is set to face an onslaught of materials and components that are no longer usable; and as countries around the world tighten waste rules with the goal of shifting toward a circular economy, it is a vital time for the renewable industry to develop ways to recycle spent renewables infrastructure; whether that is through the extraction and recycling of precious metals or taking a more creative approach to the use of the components in their ‘second’ lives.
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