The growing importance of wind and solar energy to the U.S. power grid, and the rise of electric vehicles, are all key to the nation’s growing need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, lower carbon emissions and mitigate climate change.
But at the same time, these burgeoning renewable energy industries will soon generate tons of waste as millions of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, wind turbines and lithium-ion EV batteries reach the end of their respective lifecycles.
As the saying goes, though, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Anticipating the pileup of exhausted clean-energy components — and wanting to proactively avoid past sins committed by not responsibly cleaning up after decommissioned coal mines, oil wells and power plants — a number of innovative startups are striving to create a sustainable, and lucrative, circular economy to recover, recycle and reuse the core components of climate tech innovation.
Wind and solar energy combined to generate 13.6% of utility-scale electricity last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), and those numbers will undoubtedly rise as renewable energy continues to scale up. Some leading utilities across the nation are far ahead of that pace already.
Meanwhile, sales of all-electric vehicles rose to 5.8% of the total 13.8 million vehicles Americans purchased in 2022, up from 3.2% in 2021. And with the Environmental Protection Agency’s newly proposed tailpipe emissions limits and power plant rules, EV sales could capture a 67% market share by 2032 and more utilities be forced to accelerate their power generation transition.
Solarcycle is a prime example of the companies looking to solve this climate tech waste problem of the future. Launched last year in Oakland, California, it has since constructed a recycling facility in Odessa, Texas, where it extracts 95% of the materials from end-of-life solar panels and reintroduces them into the supply chain. It sells recovered silver and copper on commodity markets and glass, silicon and aluminum to panel manufacturers and solar farm operators.
“Solar is becoming the dominant form of power generation,” Solarcycle CEO Suvi Sharma said, citing an EIA report stating that 54% of new utility-scale electric-generating capacity in the U.S. this year will come from solar. “But with that comes a new set of challenges and opportunities. We have done a phenomenal job making solar efficient and cost-effective, but really have not done anything yet on making it circular and dealing with the end-of-life [panels].”
Keeping solar panels out of landfills
The average lifespan of a solar panel is about 25 to 30 years, and there are more than 500 million already installed across the country, Sharma said, ranging from a dozen on a residential home’s rooftop to thousands in a commercial solar farm. With solar capacity now rising an average of 21% annually, tens of millions more panels will be going up — and coming down. Between 2030 and 2060, roughly 9.8 million metric tons of solar panel waste are expected to accumulate, according to a 2019 study published in Renewable Energy.
Currently, about 90% of end-of-life or defective solar panels end up in landfills, largely because it costs far less to dump them than to recycle them. “We see that gap closing over the next five to 10 years significantly,” Sharma said, “through a combination of recycling becoming more cost-effective and landfilling costs only increasing.”
Indeed, the market for recycled solar panel materials is expected to grow exponentially over the next several years. A report by research firm Rystad Energy stated they’ll be worth more than $2.7 billion in 2030, up from only $170 million last year, and accelerate to around $80 billion by 2050. The Department of Energy’s National Renewable Laboratory (NREL) found that with modest government support, recycled materials can meet 30%-50% of solar manufacturing needs in the U.S. by 2040.
Both the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provide tax credits and funding for domestic manufacturing of solar panels and components, as well as research into new solar technologies. Those provisions are intended to cut into China’s dominant position in the global solar panel supply chain, which exceeds 80% today, according to a recent report from the International Energy Agency.
One recipient of this federal funding is First Solar, the largest solar panel manufacturer in the U.S. Founded in 1999 in Tempe, Arizona, the company has production facilities in Ohio and another under construction in Alabama. It has been awarded $7.3 million in research funds to develop a new residential rooftop panel that is more efficient than current silicon or thin-film modules.
First Solar has maintained an in-house recycling program since 2005, according to an email from chief product officer Pat Buehler. “We recognized that integrating circularity into our operations was necessary to scale the business in a sustainable way,” he wrote. But rather than extracting metals and glass from retired panels and manufacturing scrap, “our recycling process provides closed-loop semiconductor recovery for use in new modules,” he added.
Massive wind turbines, blades are almost all recyclable
Retired wind turbines present another recycling challenge, as well as business opportunities. The U.S. wind energy industry started erecting turbines in the early 1980s and has been steadily growing since. The American Clean Power Association estimates that today there are nearly 72,000 utility-scale turbines installed nationwide — all but seven of them land-based — generating 10.2% of the country’s electricity.
Although the industry stalled over the past two years, due to supply chain snags, inflation and rising costs, turbine manufacturers and wind farm developers are optimistic that the tide has turned, especially given the subsidies and tax credits for green energy projects in the IRA and the Biden administration’s pledge to jumpstart the nascent offshore wind sector.
The lifespan of a wind turbine is around 20 years, and most decommissioned ones have joined retired solar panels in landfills. However, practically everything comprising a turbine is recyclable, from the steel tower to the composite blades, typically 170 feet long, though the latest models exceed 350 feet.
Between 3,000 and 9,000 blades will be retired each year for the next five years in the U.S., and then the number will increase to between 10,000 and 20,000 until 2040, according to a 2021 study by NREL. By 2050, 235,000 blades will be decommissioned, translating to a cumulative mass of 2.2 million metric tons — or more than 60,627 fully loaded tractor trailers.
How the circular renewable energy economy works
Players in the circular economy are determined not to let all that waste go to waste.
Knoxville-based Carbon Rivers, founded in 2019, has developed technology to shred not only turbine blades but also discarded composite materials from the automotive, construction and marine industries and convert them through a pyrolysis process into reclaimed glass fiber. “It can be used for next-generation manufacturing of turbine blades, marine vessels, composite concrete and auto parts,” said chief strategy officer David Morgan, adding that the process also harvests renewable oil and synthetic gas for reuse.
While processing the shredded materials is fairly straightforward, transporting massive turbine blades and other composites over long distances by rail and truck is more complicated. “Logistics is far and away the most expensive part of this entire process,” Morgan said.
In addition to existing facilities in Tennessee and Texas, Carbon Rivers plans to build sites in Florida, Pennsylvania and Idaho over the next three years, strategically located near wind farms and other feedstock sources. “We want to build another five facilities in the U.K. and Europe, then get to the South American and Asian markets next,” he said.
In the spirit of corporate sustainability — specifically not wanting their blades piling up in landfills — wind turbine manufacturers themselves are contracting with recycling partners. In December 2020, General Electric’s Renewable Energy unit signed a multi-year agreement with Boston-based Veolia North America to recycle decommissioned blades from land-based GE turbines in the U.S.
Veolia North America opened up a recycling plant in Missouri in 2020, where it has processed about 2,600 blades to date, according to Julie Angulo, senior vice president, technical and performance. “We are seeing the first wave of blades that are 10 to 12 years old, but we know that number is going to go up year-on-year,” she said.
Using a process known as kiln co-processing, Veolia reconstitutes shredded blades and other composite materials into a fuel it then sells to cement manufacturers as a replacement for coal, sand and clay. The process reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 27% and consumption of water by 13% in cement production.
“Cement manufacturers want to walk away from coal for carbon emissions reasons,” Angulo said. “This is a good substitute, so they’re good partners for us.”
GE’s wind turbine competitors are devising ways to make the next generation of blades inherently more recyclable. Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy has begun producing fully recyclable blades for both its land-based and offshore wind turbines and has said it plans to make all of its turbines fully recyclable by 2040. Vestas Wind Systems has committed to producing zero-waste wind turbines by 2040, though it has not yet introduced such a version. In February, Vestas introduced a new solution that renders epoxy-based turbine blades to be broken down and recycled.
Electric vehicle lithium-ion battery scrap
Lithium-ion batteries have been in use since the early 1990s, at first powering laptops, cell phones and other consumer electronics, and for the past couple of decades EVs and energy storage systems. Recycling of their valuable innards — lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper — is focused on EVs, especially as automakers ramp up production, including building battery gigafactories. But today’s EV batteries have a lifespan of 10-20 years, or 100,000-200,000 miles, so for the time being, recyclers are primarily processing battery manufacturers’ scrap.
Toronto-based Li-Cycle, launched in 2016, has developed a two-step technology that breaks down batteries and scrap to inert materials and then shreds them, using a hydrometallurgy process, to produce minerals that are sold back into the general manufacturing supply chain. To avoid high transportation costs for shipping feedstock from various sites, Li-Cycle has geographically interspersed four facilities — in Alabama, Arizona, New York and Ontario — where it’s deconstructed. It is building a massive facility in Rochester, New York, where the materials will be processed.
“We’re on track to start commissioning the Rochester [facility] at the end of this year,” said Li-Cycle’s co-founder and CEO Ajay Kochhlar. Construction has been funded by a $375 loan from the Department of Energy (DOE), he said, adding that since the company went public, it’s also raised about $1 billion in private deals.
A different approach to battery recycling is underway at Redwood Materials, founded outside of Reno, Nevada, in 2017 by JB Straubel, the former chief technology officer and co-founder of Tesla. Redwood also uses hydrometallurgy to break down batteries and scrap, but produces anode copper foil and cathode-active materials for making new EV batteries. Because the feedstock is not yet plentiful enough, the nickel and lithium in its cathode products will only be about 30% from recycled sources, with the remainder coming from newly mined metals.
“We’re aiming to produce 100 GWh/year of cathode-active materials and anode foil for one million EVs by 2025,” Redwood said in an email statement. “By 2030, our goal is to scale to 500 GWh/year of materials, which would enable enough batteries to power five million EVs.”
Besides its Nevada facility, Redwood has broken ground on a second one in Charleston, South Carolina. The privately held company said it has raised more than $1 billion, and in February it received a conditional commitment from the DOE for a $2-billion loan from the DOE as part of the IRA. Last year Redwood struck a multi-billion dollar deal with Tesla’s battery supplier Panasonic, and it’s also inked partnerships with Volkswagen Group of America, Toyota, Ford and Volvo.
Ascend Elements, headquartered in Westborough, Massachusetts, utilizes hydrometallurgy technology to extract cathode-active material mostly from battery manufacturing scrap, but also spent lithium-ion batteries. Its processing facility is strategically located in Covington, Georgia, a state that has attracted EV battery makers, including SK Group in nearby Commerce, as well as EV maker Rivian, near Rutledge, and Hyundai, which is building an EV factory outside of Savannah.
Last October, Ascend began construction on a second recycling facility, in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, using federal dollars earmarked for green energy projects. “We have received two grant awards from the [DOE] under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that totaled around $480 million,” said CEO Mike O’Kronley. Such federal investments, he said, “incentivizes infrastructure that needs to be built in the U.S., because around 96% of all cathode materials are made in East Asia, in particular China.”
As the nation continues to build out a multi-billion-dollar renewable energy supply chain around solar, wind and EVs, simultaneously establishing a circular economy to recover, recycle and reuse end-of-life components from those industries is essential in the overarching goal of battling climate change.
“It’s important to make sure we keep in mind the context of these emerging technologies and understand their full lifecycle,” said Garvin Heath, a senior energy sustainability analyst at NREL. “The circular economy provides a lot of opportunities to these industries to be as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible at a relatively early phase of their growth.”