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Nearly zero waste renewable energy is within reach thanks to new recycling tech

the sun shines brightly over solar panels with 3 wind turbines in the background
Image Credit: Wix

Renewable energy is getting close to becoming a zero waste source of energy in addition to having no emissions associated with power generation.

While the wind turbines, solar panels, and associated hardware that's part of a low-cost energy revolution may never be completely recyclable, for companies venturing to recycle renewable materials or make sources of renewable power recyclable, 95 percent material recovery seems to be the magic number.

Odessa, Texas-based startup Solarcycle launched last year with $6.6 million in fundraising and an ambitious goal: to recover 95% of the valuable materials in solar modules. Now, the company is advancing on that goal with another $30 million to build its solar recycling factories.

Over in China, the OEM firm MingYang Smart Energy officially launched a 75.7-meter wind turbine blade this week it said was made from 95% recyclable materials. This is the first recyclable wind turbine out of Asia.

Back in the States, in California, Redwood Materials showed 95% efficiency in its lithium-ion battery recycling pilot plant, an essential move in decreasing the global reliance on mining and decreasing the environmental impact of tech, specifically green tech.

But why are all these companies shooting for the magic 95%? Well, up until recently, there weren’t many startups venturing to recycle the critical materials needed for renewable power sources. The short answer to why, is because it’s incredibly difficult and costly.

When wind turbines with their epoxy, carbon fiber, and glass composites are built to withstand natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes, they’re not easily recycled. Plus, solar panels and lithium-ion batteries contain chemicals and metals, such as lead, that create environmental hazards as they degrade.

On top of that, there’s the price tag. The price to recycle a single solar panel is about $15 to $45 for a silicon PV module in the states, compared to only $1 to $5 to simply dump it in a landfill. So, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates that the price is the reason only 10% of decommissioned panels are recycled.

The low recycling numbers lead to some staggering stats.

As Bloomberg reported in 2020, more than 8,000 turbines will be removed in the U.S. leading up to 2024. That means tens of thousands of aging blades wind up in landfills.

Right now, solar is the largest category of new power-plant construction in the U.S. and according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, all that construction will lead to 78 million metric tons of solar panels in the landfill by 2050.

The world will also be producing 6 million metric tons of new solar e-waste annually. Unfortunately, that’s just a small fraction of the amount of e-waste we already produce.

Speaking of e-waste, by 2030, there could be 11 million tonnes of lithium-ion battery waste from electric vehicles alone. That’s enough e-waste to fill London’s Wembley Stadium 20 times over, and that’s before counting the landslide of battery devices needed for utilities and appliances in the energy transition.

Right now, the earliest EV packs are starting to reach their end of life, and if solutions aren’t scaled, soon a landslide of batteries could reach landfills. Luckily, innovation in recycling seems to be coming at just the right time.

Redwood’s pilot program started a year ago, collecting old EV battery packs from Volvo and Ford, and since has partnered with automakers like Audi and the rest of Volkswagen Group.

Redwood doesn’t only accept EV batteries. Through its partnership with Audi, it takes batteries from old phones, laptops, and more and uses materials for EV batteries.

Earlier this year, the Nevada-based startup scored a huge $2 billion federal loan to keep the recycling going and scale. And they're not alone. U.S.-based companies like LiCycle and Ascend Elements are also building facilities to recycle battery components.

Over in the wind industry, circularity is all the rage as an increasing number of startups tackle blade repurposing and recycling.

Turbine blades last an average of 20 years. According to a 2017 study published in the scientific journal Waste Management, by 2050, the world’s wind industry could be producing 43 million tons of blade waste annually.

In February, Vestas unveiled its “circularity solution to end landfill for turbine blades.” A lofty goal, the Danish turbine manufacturer says that its solution doesn’t require companies to change blade designs or the composition of blade materials to implement. In fact, once matured, the company claims the solution will completely eliminate the need for landfilling or redesigning blades.

“Until now, the wind industry has believed that turbine blade material calls for a new approach to design and manufacture to be either recyclable or beyond this, circular, at end of life. Going forward, we can now view old epoxy-based blades as a source of raw material,” Lisa Ekstrand, Vice President and Head of Sustainability at Vestas said in a statement.

“Once this new technology is implemented at scale, legacy blade material currently sitting in a landfill, as well as blade material in active windfarms, can be disassembled, and re-used. This signals a new era for the wind industry, and accelerates our journey towards achieving circularity.”

Vestas isn’t the only one working on a solution to the wind industry’s disposal problem.

Spanish engineering company Siemens Gamesa is currently testing its recyclable offshore wind turbine blades in one of the world’s largest offshore wind farms in Germany to see if they can withstand the pressures of the open ocean. Similar to Vestas, the wind giant uses a chemical process for its recyclable blades.

Like wind turbines, more and more solar panels are nearing the end of their lives. But maybe they don’t have to.

“There’s no real industrial-scale recycling process for solar. We came to the conclusion that we needed to develop one,” Solarcycle co-founder and CEO Suvi Sharma told the clean energy publication Canary Media last year. ​“What inspired our investors is that we have a vision for a centralized gigafactory to process millions of panels. Nobody else is operating at that scale.”

And he’s right; as Canary Media reports, currently, there’s no industrial-scale solar recycling operation capable of handling the volume of panels reaching the end of their lives. An industry-standard solar panel has a lifespan of 25 to 30 years, with some parts lasting shorter amounts of time.

When Solarcycle launched, its goal was to recycle 300,000 panels. Now, as more and more reach the end of their lives, Solarcycle plans to expand its capacity to recycle 1 million solar panels annually by the close of this year. By 2024, it plans to up that number to “millions of panels.”

What Solarcycle does is take apart and repurpose specific parts of solar panels to create either new panels or something entirely different. They do the same for new panels that may break during the installation process.

“A solar panel has a lot of crucial elements in it, such as glass, aluminum, silver, copper, silicon,” Sharma said in a recent video highlighting Solarcycle’s partnership with community solar provider Silicon Ranch.

“These things, if they’re recycled properly, can be reused again. So rather than mining that from the ground, we can mine these from old solar panels,” he said, adding that putting them back into new panels makes “the industry more scalable, and also more sustainable in the process.”

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