Opinion: The sun is rising on a circular economy for renewable energy

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The circular economy is a new way of doing business where products are designed to last longer and to be reusable or recyclable once they have reached their end of life. Nothing is considered waste and companies work together to create supply chains where one product’s waste becomes an input for manufacturing another product.

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Wind turbine blades are a classic example of a linear product. They were designed to be strong, lightweight, cost-effective, easy to manufacture, and with an operating lifetime of 25 to 30 years. There was little consideration about what to do with them when they needed to be retired. As a result, large numbers of turbine blades were being buried in landfills.

The hard fiberglass of turbine blades is difficult to break down and there is little demand for recycled fiberglass as standard material costs are so low. However, through innovation, a market is emerging for this waste material. Companies like The Re-Wind Network are repurposing wind turbine blades as bike shelters in Denmark. General Electric recently announced that it will work with Veolia to grind down these blades and the shredded material will be used as a filler material in cement. Vestas, the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer, announced last year that they have developed a method for separating epoxy and polymers from their turbine blades, which will be 100-per-cent recyclable by 2030.

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According to Dave Kelly, the founder and CEO of SkyFire Energy, the ramp-up of huge volumes of solar installations in Alberta only started within the last few years. Mr. Kelly said, “a solar module will last 30 to 40 years so we don’t have the volume yet to support dedicated recycling.” But that capability is on the horizon with Sunset Renewable Asset Management, a Canadian company focusing entirely on recycling materials from the renewable energy industry. Sunset is collecting solar panels in Alberta, and has recycled over 7,500 solar panels through various projects across Canada.

Veolia is expecting to recycle 4,000 tons of solar panel waste this year at their Rousset recycling facility in France. Built in 2017, the plant uses sophisticated technology including robotics to achieve a 95-per-cent recovery rate. The majority of the recycled material is glass (60 to 75 per cent), plastic (up to 10 per cent), and aluminum (up to 10 per cent), but silicon, and metals such as copper and silver, are also recovered. in to 2016 study by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), it was estimated that recovered materials from solar panel recycling could be worth $450 million US by 2030 and exceed $15 billion by 2050.

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Solar farms also contain recyclable materials. Once the panels reach the end of life, they can be swapped out for new panels featuring the latest technology, but Kelly points out that the site can also be easily reclaimed. “The racking is all steel so that’s recyclable. We have screw piles in the ground that can be screwed out again. If you want to, you can take the wire out of the ground, or just leave it in. It’s not going to cause any harm.” In comparison, a study by Daniel Raimi, et al.indicates that recovering an abandoned oil well involves removal of surface equipment such as pump jacks, removal of the cement well pad and contaminated soil, which ends up in a landfill, and sealing of the wellbore.

As more solar comes online, there will be a growing opportunity for recycling services in Alberta. The Traverse solar project will produce 465 megawatts of power, doubling Alberta’s solar generating capacity, using approximately 1.3 million solar modules. The need to eventually recycle solar modules will translate into investments in facilities and equipment, as well as create new jobs to collect, process, and manage the materials.

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Those materials will be used as inputs to other industries, or be used in the construction of new solar panels. Organizations like PV Cycle are designed to assist companies with their waste management and help them understand new regulatory requirements such as the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive. The foundation of a circular economy is rapidly emerging for the solar industry, and Alberta is well-positioned to take advantage of this new opportunity.

Robert Miller is a retired systems engineer, formerly with General Dynamics Canada, who now volunteers with the Calgary Climate Hub and writes on behalf of Eco-Elders for Climate Action. He lives in Calgary.

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