Energy Minute: Reuse, Repurpose or Recycle – Pathways to Reducing Waste in Key Clean Energy Sectors
In this Energy Minute, co-hosts Dana Dohse and Steven Goldman pull back the lens and take a broader look at the challenges of end-of-life materials pose to the clean energy transition, and how a mix of startups, local governments and heavy industrial companies are finding ways to reuse, repurpose and recycle solar panels, wind blades and turbines and batteries. They provide insights on some of the early efforts - and big funding rounds - underway to close the loop on materials in the clean energy supply chain.
Today, discussions on decarbonization are focused about what we need to build – more clean energy assets, more electric vehicles, more hydrogen and EV-charging infrastructure, more new efficient buildings or software and equipment to make older building more efficient. But a soon-to-be-huge issue that’s emerging is waste – retired solar panels, wind turbines and blades, batteries from electric vehicles and energy storage – and what to do with it all.
In this Energy Minute, co-hosts Dana Dohse and Steven Goldman pull back the lens and take a broader look at the challenges of end-of-life materials pose to the clean energy transition, and how a mix of startups, local governments and heavy industrial companies are finding ways to reuse, repurpose and recycle solar panels, wind blades and turbines and batteries. They provide insights on some of the early efforts – and big funding rounds – underway to close the loop on materials in the clean energy supply chain.
- New recycling technology has the potential to separate out the elements that are caught up in the “hash,” such as silicon, polysilicon, and silver. Those materials are expected to become more valuable over time due to virgin material shortages and supply chain bottlenecks.
- The cumulative mass of decommissioned wind turbine blades in the U.S. will reach 1.5 million metric tons by 2040 and 2.2 million tons by 2050. The largest blades being deployed today – turning to power 15-megawatt offshore wind turbines – are over 350 feet long, roughly the length of a football field, so keeping them from taking up landfill space is critical for communities.
- A recent partnership between the Environmental Solutions and Services division of Veolia North America, an energy, water, and waste company, and GE Renewables to build a recycling program has already turned 2,000 of these giant blades into an alternative valuable commodity, which is cement.
- Organizations mentioned in this show: SOLARCYCLE, Veolia North America, Carbon Rivers, Global Fiberglass Solutions, Ascend Elements, Redwood Materials, Li-Cycle
- The Renewable Energy Laboratory wind turbine study: https://www.nrel.gov/news/program/2021/nrel-research-identifies-motivations-methods-for-achieving-a-circular-economy-for-wind-energy.html
- Article on Veolia partnering with GE for renewable energy blades: https://www.veolia.com/en/news/united-states-veolia-makes-cement-and-gives-second-life-ge-renewable-energys-wind-turbine
Dana Dohse: Welcome to this week’s Energy Minute, brought to you by Cleartrace. I’m Dana Dohse.
Steven Goldman: And I’m Steve Goldman.
Dana Dohse: Adoption of renewable energy resources like solar and wind power and batteries for both vehicles and energy storage continues to accelerate in both size and scope. But what happens when the components of each of these asset types reach the end of life and need to be replaced?
Steven Goldman: Last week on the show, Lincoln sat down with Nth Cycle’s Megan O’Connor to hear about a new technology that’s making it easier to both recycle and harvest virgin materials from mining for batteries. But on this Energy Minute, we’re pulling the lens back and taking a broader look at how repowering disposal, reuse, and recycling are happening across these sectors.
Dana Dohse: And in the process, we’re going to give you a glimpse of some of the early efforts underway to close the loop on materials in the clean energy supply chain. Let’s get into it.
Steven Goldman: Why don’t we start with solar, because I feel like it’s one of the most looked at, it’s going up on rooftops all the way up to utility scale. So what are the challenges with recycling solar panels when they hit the end of life?
Dana Dohse: There are a lot of challenges, but let’s pull back and talk about some context first, just so listeners understand the scale of what we’re talking about. In the US, we’ve installed millions of solar panels and only about 10% of those are reaching end of life or currently being recycled. There’s not a federal mandate or really anything causing that stick to make sure people move in this direction. And the problem is that it costs more to recycle them than it does to discard them. Lots more. Recycled content is about $3 per panel, but it costs about $25 per panel to recycle. And that problem’s only going to get bigger as we generate more energy from solar. So in 2019, for example, solar accounted for about 3% of the world’s energy production, and it took 46 million solar panels to do that.
Steven Goldman: It’s not a single commodity. It’s not like recycling soda cans or scrap metal or anything like that. Solar panels are essentially a wafer of different materials. So you’ve got roughly 75% glass, you’ve got aluminum framing, you’ve got copper wiring, and then you have these polysilicon wafers that form the panels that include other materials like silver. And so part of the problem is the resulting materials that you get from breaking down solar panels, you have to apply high heat nor to dissolve the adhesive, and then you’re left with this copper from wiring, you have aluminum framing and you have this kind of hash, they call it, that’s glass and then silicon and other elements as well, and generally is ground together and doesn’t have a high resale value.
So the opportunity is that there’s new recycling technologies in the horizon that may make recovery of those materials easier that’s still getting up the commercialization curve, but holds the potential to separate out the elements that are caught up in that ash, like getting more of the silicon and polysilicon, getting more of the silver out. Now, the reason that’s important is that those materials are expected to become more valuable due to virgin material shortages and supply chain bottlenecks. Right now, recycled materials from retired systems only make up about 0.8% of PV being supplied today. But [inaudible 00:03:09] Energy and Energy Consultancy is projecting that recycling’s going to become a lot more attractive in the future. It could rise to as much as 6% of solar PV panels that are purchased by 2040.
Dana Dohse: They predict that by 2035, the PV recycling industry will be positioned to supply 8% of the polysilicon, 11% of the aluminum, 2% of the copper, and 21% of the silver needed by recycling PV panels installed in 2020 to meet the demand for those materials. So increasing the recycling rates is critical because the amount of panels retired is expected to rise very naturally. So the International Renewable Energy Agency has projected that by 2030, that figure could be close to 8 million tons, and by 2050 it could be 6 million tons of dead solar panels every year.
Steven Goldman: Now the interesting thing, you mentioned before that there wasn’t any current US federal rules about ensuring the recyclability of solar. However, the EU is starting to pull forward regulatory changes requiring that, and I think a few states in the US have done local regs around it. So there’s still a lot of levers that government could apply to increasing the amount of recycled material in the solar supply chain.
A few startups are leading the way. In particular, recycling startup SOLARCYCLE announced this month that it raised 30 million in series A funding for a total of 37 million since its founding a year ago. Based in Oakland, California, SOLARCYCLE claims that it’s on track to recycle 1 million solar panels per year by the end of 2023, and plans to open a recycling factory in Odessa, Texas in 2024 that will be capable of processing millions of panels annually. NPC incorporated in Japan is also recycling panels using its quote-unquote heated blade technique, which they claim enables them to separate the glass and metal layers for more efficient recovery and materials.
Dana Dohse: But still, technology needs to improve and prices for recycled materials remain factors that are slowing the closing of that loop. Moving on from solar, we have the next big renewable category of wind, and wind energy has even bigger challenges. And quite literally. That’s because the blades for wind turbines are made of composites largely consisted of fiberglass and other materials, and they’re massive, like hundreds of feet long, massive. And because of that, the materials that are being used, they’re really challenging to recycle. So I had to look, exactly how big are these blades? So in 2021, the average diameter, so that sweep of the windmill arc, was 418 feet, so longer than a football field.
Steven Goldman: And that’s the average diameter for wind turbines back then. But now we’re starting to see even larger wind turbines being deployed for offshore use. They’re starting to deploy ones I think as large as 15 megawatt turbines. And the individual blades for those are over 350 feet long. It’s the length of a football field, as you were saying, or one and a half times the length of a Boeing 747. But the thing too is, and I think we were starting to touch on this with solar, is these are pretty long-lived assets. For the challenges that are coming up around end of life and we talk about disposal or recycling or any of these things, both solar and wind panels are warrantied for usually 20 to 25 years. These are not short-lived assets that are going to burn out in five years and start piling up. And what we’ve seen the early pictures of people saying, “Oh, we’re going to fill up our landfills with wind turbine blades.” You’re talking about wind turbines that were installed in the eighties and are now being, not even retired, they’re being what they call repowered, where they’re taking down the turbine and taking down the blades so they can put longer bladed, higher power rated turbines up to increase the efficiency of power generation at that site.
Dana Dohse: So if we leave this problem unaddressed, the scale of the problem can grow as massive as the blades. A study from the Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated that the cumulative mass of decommissioned blades in the US will reach 1.5 million metric tons by 2040 and 2.2 million tons by 2050. So why is this a problem now if the wind turbines have such long lifespans and so many are still being installed?
Steven Goldman: I would say it’s just about getting ready, because we know they’re going to have long lifespans but we also know, the same way we’ve known for decades about issues around nuclear waste disposal, we know it’s things we will have to deal with and we can either wait until there’s an issue or we can try to create opportunities. And I think what’s interesting is there’s solutions starting to come to the fore today.
Dana Dohse: So some of the solutions in the works, there are a range of companies that are quickly investigating ways to avoid land filling these massive hunks of fiberglass. For example, the Environmental Solutions and Services Division of Veolia North America is an energy, water and waste company. They partnered with GE Renewables to build a program that has already turned 2000 of these giant blades and into an alternate valuable commodity, which is cement. So they’re taking the material and using it to actually make the cement, which is big because cement has a really big carbon footprint.
Steven Goldman: You can basically reduce the amount of clinker, which is the core feed stock for cement. Instead of that, you can replace it with the fibers that they’ve ground down and extracted from these giant turbine blades and use that as a replacement, and then you need less of the traditional material used for cement that has a higher carbon footprint.
Dana Dohse: So in addition to that, a Lilly-owned company, Global Fiberglass Solutions, also known as GFS, uses the pulverized waste composite to make new composites. Some of the uses this company is finding for composite pellets produced by the process include construction, flooring panels, tough plastics for shipping pallets and crates, railroad ties and other industrial products. So when the company reaches full production, its facilities will be able to process about 175,000 tons of materials. So over 6,000 blades per facility each year. Not bad.
Steven Goldman: Yeah, because they’re not retiring that quickly. And the idea that we’re seeing these facilities are able to start ramping up, figuring out how much capacity they can handle and start scaling to meet the need. I think there’s another one too. It was Carbon Rivers, I think they’re based in Tennessee. They’re recovering fiberglass from the shredded blades via a different process, it’s called pyrolysis, which is like a low oxygen type of heating, that basically gets the material from the blades above 300 degrees Celsius. Which breaks down the resin, turns it into a mixture of hydrocarbon gas, liquids and glass fibers, and then they can clean those fibers, and then sell that to fiberglass suppliers that can sell to their customers or they can make it into other materials like thermoplastic pellets, fabrics and fiber reinforced parts for sectors like automotive or marine or sporting goods. It’s really interesting the repurpose opportunities that are coming off of this.
Dana Dohse: That’s pretty amazing. And I’ve also seen that new materials like recyclable epoxy resins are being developed that can be more easily recovered and reused. So they’re really thinking about that full circular picture of the wind turbine economy.
Steven Goldman: The last one, and this is the one I actually just want to go see, I’ve seen turbines in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe when I’ve been over there for work trips, but apparently in the Netherlands, in Poland, in a few other countries, they’ve been repurposing either whole or chunks of wind turbine blades into things like playgrounds and bicycle shelters and public benches and bridges, like actual walking bridges. Just the idea that you’ve got these massive structures that can be repurposed as pieces of what they were.
Dana Dohse: That’s really cool. I love the creativity happening there.
Steven Goldman: Yeah. The last segment we’re going to touch on are batteries. Reuse and recycling of batteries has been slow to be addressed, because outside of e-waste from consumer devices, until recently, the volume just wasn’t there. Everyone has been expecting this to rise as an urgent need for the recycling sector, but there has to be this mixture of supply and demand. There has to be sufficient demand for the materials and then sufficient feed stock to provide the supply for recycled material to go back into being new batteries. To give you a sense of the scale, batteries from electric vehicles only started being retired in significant volumes in 2021, and that’s looking back at the earliest wave of purchased electric vehicles from about anywhere from five to 10 years prior. And you’ve got stationary storage projects that are being built for 20-year lifespans, probably with some level of augmentation during its lifetime. These batteries can be in service for a decade or more before they’re being retired. So it’s created this disconnect where we know we need to do it, but nobody was quite sure when. And so now it’s starting to move forward. We’re seeing both a rise on the demand side and the supply side as factories are ramping up, as we’ll talk about.
Dana Dohse: These issues are getting more and more complex, and there’s a range of reasons for that. First is we’ve really integrated batteries into all parts of our lives. We’ve got smartphones, all the way up to massive grid scale battery installations that can store and discharge enough electricity to power small towns for hours. So the largest energy storage installations today have a footprint of the big box stores or football field sized banks of battery containers, and they contain hundreds of thousands or even millions of battery cells.
Steven Goldman: And there’s also a range of chemistries at play. It’s not as simple as sorting your plastics one through six and your aluminum cans and a relatively small set of materials that are somewhat uniform. Batteries today, they have different form factors, so they can either be cylindrical cells, which are bigger than today’s AA batteries, or pouch cells, which honestly look closer to like a flattened Capri Sun, to take everybody back to their youth, which are basically a flatter substrate with an anode and a cathode, and they’re basically stacked together in what they call modules or packs, which are complete with wiring and sensors and then they get integrated into vehicles or they’re put onto racks. There’s some order to what you see in a server farm, except instead of servers, you’re seeing racks of batteries and then power electronics components and the containers around them that hold them, until recently, looked like shipping containers that you would see, like the typical 40-foot shipping containers. And today they’re moving to smaller, more modular type enclosures. But roughly that, a similar idea.
Dana Dohse: We’ve got a range of processes, a range of form factors, and accordingly, the recycling streams for batteries include a wide range of chemistries containing different elements in the casing substrate, anode and cathode that make them up. Plus we have the wiring, plastics and other elements. So more energy dense lithium ion batteries typically use a combination of nickel, manganese, and cobalt, whereas lithium ion phosphate batteries have gained widespread use in automotive applications and more recently for stationary storage because of the lower cost and lower risk of a fire.
Steven Goldman: And what’s happening there is the most valuable elements like lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese. They’re generally in smaller amounts and to recover them in sufficient volumes, it takes a good amount of effort and energy. But what it really takes is supply, to justify opening up a recycling facility. You need a pretty significant amount of feeding in in order to harvest enough of these materials to then justify that investment.
Dana Dohse: And to your point, the demand is there, because everybody needs batteries. The demand is going sky-high with a huge demand for electric vehicles and a similar growth in the adoption of battery-based energy storage. I feel like the tipping point is right upon us. An analyst from HSBC predicts that roughly 1 million electric vehicle batteries will be taken out of service and likely recycled by 2025. So it’s here.
Steven Goldman: And you’re also seeing, we’ll talk about it, but there’s just a range of companies that, as we said, are getting ready. There’s incentives coming from the government and they’re basically getting all of their processes in place.
Dana Dohse: So how are batteries from electric vehicles and energy storage actually recycled?
Steven Goldman: There’s really three main methods. There’s been pyrometallurgy, hydrometallurgy, and direct recycling. Pyrometallurgy is a little older. It uses more energy. It’s based on high temperatures. One of the big advantages of it is it doesn’t require extensive pre-treatment because the batteries are just processed in a high temperature smelting furnace without sorting or separation. The hydrometallurgical processes can get a really high recovery rate, like 98 plus percent for these key metals like cobalt, nickel, and lithium, and it’s less energy intensive and it can be adjusted for different battery chemistries. And then there’s direct recycling, which is trying to reuse the active cathode materials directly after regeneration. So it has an advantage of low-carbon emissions and a relatively simple process. However, some batteries of different types of chemistries and a mixture of more than one active material. So overall, the industry’s moving more towards the hydrometallurgical process because it’s less energy intensive and has a higher recovery rate. But, as we heard last week with Megan O’Connor talking about Nth Cycle’s method, they’re working not in a hydrometallurgical process. They’re working with this electromechanical version that’s really totally different and really fascinating.
Dana Dohse: So currently about 80% of our recycling capacity is in China, but a range of parties are moving quickly to set up facilities in other countries. So closer to both where the batteries are retired and where the recycled materials can be reincorporated into new batteries. We’ve mentioned Northvolt on the show before. They’re a Swedish startup that’s working to produce highly sustainable batteries. And from a production standpoint, they’re working to minimize the use of conflict minerals and maximize the use of recycled materials. So to make that a reality, they’re building multiple recycling plants in Europe, alongside battery product Gigafactories to create their own streams of recycled materials.
Steven Goldman: And that’s, I think, what the challenge is proving to be is it’s not just enough to do the recycling, they’re trying to figure out, okay, how do we break down this material that we want to recycle, whether that’s wind turbine blades, whether that’s solar panels, whether that’s batteries, and then how do we have that recycling taking place as close as possible to where you’re going to need those materials for reproduction? And so everybody’s trying to figure that out today. What we’ve seen is there’s a range of startups, as we said, that are getting big funding rounds and government support to set up recycling facilities in the United States. That’s happening because the costs of battery inputs are going up globally, especially lithium prices have shot up dramatically in the last year or two. And the high concentration of materials being refined and the recycling providers are in China and what’s been put in place under the Inflation Reduction Act is, and then tariffs that were passed under the previous administration against Chinese imports has led to the US taking more of an approach where they want to onshore as much of that production, including recycling as possible, and try to create more of a domestic industry.
Dana Dohse: So another startup that caught my attention at least, Ascend Elements. So they were founded by former members of the NEC’s energy and storage business. They’ve raised over 300 million and secured, 400 million in grants from the Department of Energy, and they’re putting the funding towards construction of its first sustainable battery materials plant. So they’re producing both cathode active materials and precursor materials that can equip up to 250,000 electric vehicles per year.
Steven Goldman: We were talking with [Environmental Defense Fund’s] Michael Panfil a couple of shows ago, and he was saying how it’s really impressive how the incentives that are being put into place and how everyone is looking to set up these factories and they’re happening in all different states across the US. It’s not strictly West Coast, not strictly East Coast. These types of recycling facilities are popping up where you wouldn’t expect them. For example, Redwood Materials was co-founded by a former Tesla battery executive, J.B. Straubel. They’ve got a $2 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy to build their battery materials campus. They’re looking to produce a hundred gigawatt hours per year of ultra-thin battery grade copper foil and cathode active materials from both new and recycled feed stocks. They’re aiming to produce more than a million EVs worth of US-made components from this campus.
Dana Dohse: That’s cool. That just goes to show how much creativity and innovation is coming into this space–
Steven Goldman: –and the scale of funds as well–
Dana Dohse: All of this to say the pace of clean energy adoption isn’t just limited to deployments. A wide range of players are moving quickly to solve the end of life issues associated with wind, solar, batteries, and other technologies associated with growing the supply of renewable energy.
Steven Goldman: It’s going to be an exciting set of sectors to watch how this is going to evolve. The chatter online, the growth of the climate tech space of everyone trying to make that their life’s work. And we’re going to talk about that in future weeks, that all of this is producing huge startup activity that’s working to solve these challenges.
Dana Dohse: So five years ago, this was all hypothetical, and it’s great to see this. Today, we’re moving forward with new levels of speed and innovation, especially the funding side, and I feel like that’s really going to bode well for our clean energy future.
Thanks for joining us for this week’s Energy Minute. For more of the latest news in sustainability and decarbonization, visit cleartrace.io.