EDPR NA Energy Insight
Powering Sustainability: The Recyclability of Renewable Energy Products and Components
January 25, 2024
In an era where sustainability is paramount, the renewable energy industry stands at the forefront of a crucial question: Are renewable energy power generation products and components truly recyclable? The answer is a resounding YES. As we navigate the path toward a cleaner and greener future, it is essential to understand how solar panels, energy storage systems, and wind turbines, along with their associated products, materials, and components, contribute to circularity in the clean energy economy.
Solar Panels: Responsibly Harnessing the Power of the Sun
Solar panels, the backbone of solar energy systems, are indeed recyclable following their 30-year operational life. SOLARCYCLE, a company dedicated to advancing sustainable practices in the solar industry and a recycling partner of EDP Renewables North America (EDPR NA), confirms that approximately 95% of the value in a photovoltaic (PV) module can be recycled.1
SOLARCYCLE’s sustainable solar practices include the recovery of valuable materials such as silicon, glass, aluminum, and precious metals that are in decommissioned solar panels. The recycling process involves disassembling frames and junction boxes, separating glass from silicon wafers, and shredding the panels to separate different components. These valuable materials are then extracted and reused in the manufacturing of new solar panels or repurposed into solar glass, aluminum, and electronic products.2
With the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent study measuring as much as one million ton of solar panel waste in the United States by 20303, these recycling initiatives are crucial to reducing waste and conserving resources as well as propelling our clean energy market toward a more sustainable circular economy. According to SOLARCYCLE, each solar panel recycled saves 97 lbs. of carbon dioxide emissions, which significantly contributes to advancing decarbonization in the U.S.4 EDPR has also partnered with Cal Micro, Cascade Eco Minerals, Echo Environmental, ERI, Green Clean Solar, Ontility, PowerHouse Recycling, and We Recycle Solar to address recycling needs around the continent through the Close the Loop Program.
Energy Storage Systems: Energizing a Sustainable Future
Energy storage systems play a pivotal role in enhancing the reliability and efficiency of renewable energy. Fortunately, these systems are recyclable as well, and according to American Battery Technology Company, battery metals can be recycled indefinitely.5 The recycling process for batteries involves collecting spent batteries, disassembling them, and separating materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel for reuse in batteries or other valuable products and components.
As the demand for strategic battery metals grows, the need for recycling used batteries becomes increasingly critical. Organizations such as American Battery Technology Company and LiCycle, among many others, are leading the charge to conserve resources, reduce the need for mining virgin materials, and decrease battery materials in landfill.
Wind Turbines: Spearheading Environmental Responsibility of Wind Energy
As the fourth-largest source of electricity generation capacity in the country6, wind turbines are a testament to the power of wind energy. These structures are not only recyclable but also present a unique opportunity for material repurposing. The American Clean Power Association affirms that roughly 80 to 94% of a wind turbine (by mass) is made up of readily recyclable materials, including steel, copper, aluminum, and iron. This estimate also includes the steel used in the turbine’s concrete foundation.7
In the U.S., the estimated cumulative blade waste in 2050 will be approximately 2.2 million tons. This value represents approximately 1% of the remaining landfill capacity by volume or 0.2% by mass.8 Recycling of wind turbine blades has proved challenging in the past due to a limited supply of recycling vendors available, methods of recycling, and cost. However, research and development in blade recycling technologies continues to grow, and there are currently five techniques that are commercially available: mechanical grinding, chemical separation, thermal processing, co-processing in cement kilns, and upcycling. Fortunately, the renewable energy sector’s recycling vendors, including CanvUs, Carbon Rivers, Green Clean Wind, Logisticus, Rivercap, TPI Composites, Veolia, Vestas, Wind Power Solutions, and WindWorx continue to grow, supporting both the industry’s advancement, and the need for innovative recycling solutions.
In addition to the five techniques that are commercially available, EDPR NA also aims to extend the life of materials with sustainable solutions such as repowering. In 2021, EDPR NA, through a partnership with Mortensen and Vestas, recycled more than 200 blades, preventing the landfill of 6000 metric tons of material at the Blue Canyon II Repower Project.
By addressing the recyclability of wind turbines, the renewable energy industry demonstrates its commitment to minimizing waste and promoting a sustainable approach. Additionally, EDPR NA has a nationwide partnership with SafetyKleen to recover used oils, fluids, and solvents from renewable energy operations, along with localized partners who support the recycling of scrap metals from both construction and operations.
Closing the Loop: Driving the Agenda for a Sustainable Circular Economy
We’re proud of the renewable energy industry’s move to actively embrace the principles of recycling and the circular economy by responsibly managing the lifecycle of its products.
EDPR NA is “future-proofing” the company’s asset operations and ensuring sustainability practices span from development to the culminating production of clean electrons. Through EDP NA’s recently launched recycling program, Close the Loop, the company has engaged SOLARCYCLE and 18 additional vendors to keep sustainability front and center throughout the business.
Together, it is our responsibility as an energy sector to ensure that our businesses embody sustainable practices. These practices range from redesigning products and components for an extended lifetime of use and increased recyclability to reusing or repurposing products via resale. Additionally, upcycling, which can benefit both the planet and future generations, and recycling products and components into base materials which can contribute to a circular supply chain are amongst recommended practices.
EDPR NA looks forward to working with its current and future recycling partners, as well as its suppliers and offtakers, to make an impact on how sustainability is viewed and practiced across the project lifecycle of a 21st century renewable energy project.