Giving green tech a new lease on life

Solar Panels

Chris Smith writes about what he calls the big dilemma: how can we recycle the tech that’s helping us reduce emissions? The internet is full of claims it can’t be done, but industry experts say otherwise.

The law of unintended consequences will soon reach green-energy generators – and its opponents are seizing the opportunity to criticise.

Technology that’s essential for meeting zero-emission targets will soon start to reach the end of its useful working life. Opponents of wind turbines and solar farms claim (often very vocally) that they cannot be disposed of in an environmentally friendly way – but industry experts disagree. Life cycles are long, and recycling solutions already exist.

The problem is the here and now. Take one of the pioneers of green motoring – the Toyota Prius. Some of these cars are now 25 years old and most only have a lifespan of 10 years. The deadline for their disposal – including the lithium-ion batteries that power them – is upon us.

Ray Parmenter​, head of policy and technical at CIWM, explains: “A lot of those batteries are coming to the end of their life. There are risks now when they get into the wrong sorting system – and then there’s the big stuff, such as solar panels. The industry has to think about how it gears up for this.”

We want to recycle the tech here, in the UK. But we’re beginning to get there.

The web is full of claims that nothing can be done, and green technology is anything but eco-friendly. So, what’s the reality? “There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Parmenter says. “It’s about trying to predict whether the tech will take off. We want to recycle the tech here, in the UK. But we’re beginning to get there.”

Opponents of wind farms say turbines can’t be disposed of, but only the blades cause problems – and these are now being produced with end-of-life recycling in mind thanks to an innovation by Siemens Gamesa. The National Composites Centre, in partnership with Crown Estate and ORE Catapult, is also working to find a solution.

Dr Stephen Wyatt, research and innovation director at ORE Catapult, says: “Offshore wind capacity, globally, is set to grow rapidly to meet our low-carbon energy needs. So we must work to minimise the direct impact on our environment and look for innovative ways to recycle the existing fleet of wind turbines and their blades.

“We must also work to future-proof technology for the next generation, through the use of composites or more environmentally friendly and sustainable materials.”

A great example of this can be found at Michigan State University, where researchers have made a composite material from fibre-glass and a pair of polymers – one synthetic, the other plant-derived. When the blades reach the end-of-life stage, the material can be broken down and made into new products – from new turbine blades to gummy bears.

Offshore wind capacity, globally, is set to grow rapidly to meet our low-carbon energy needs.

Another often-heard claim is that the materials inside solar panels are toxic, so can’t be reused. That’s not true either. “Solar photovoltaic panels are 90-95% recyclable,” says a spokesperson for the French utility firm Engie.

“The challenges are to anticipate the number of panels to be recycled, to adapt the number of operational sites and create a sound process to collect the panels, especially when they are owned by individuals.”

In 2014, Engie – with help from manufacturers and operators – set up Soren, a processing unit in France dedicated to the recycling of photovoltaic panels. It’s a good blueprint for how things could happen in the UK.

The firm told Circular: “An operator wishing to recycle photovoltaic panels requests Soren, which, depending on the volumes, will dispatch a service provider on site or indicate the nearest collection point.

EV battery
Veolia is building a recycling facility, which will have the capacity to process 20% of the UK’s end-of-life EV batteries by 2024.

“The operations are fully financed by an eco-tax, so do not require any payment at the time of collection. In 2021, Soren announced a significant increase in its treatment capacities, and new units will be operational in the Lille, Bordeaux and Toulouse areas.”

A problem in green tech is rechargeable-battery disposal, which is linked to toxic waste and reliance on conflict metals, such as lithium. By 2040, it is estimated that there will be 350,000 tonnes of end-of-life EV batteries in the UK – but they can be recycled.

Veolia is building a recycling facility in Minworth, West Midlands, which will have the capacity to process 20% of the UK’s end-of-life EV batteries by 2024. Batteries will be discharged and dismantled at the site, before the mechanical and chemical separation recycling processes, called “urban mining”, retrieve the metals inside.

“Urban mining is essential if we are to protect raw materials, and will create a new, high-skilled industry,” says Gavin Graveson, senior executive vice-president of Veolia in northern Europe. But there’s more to do.

“The next big opportunity will come when the government reviews the battery regulations. We need to look at things like battery return schemes,” Parmenter says. ‘It’s about thinking ahead: what are the life cycles and consequences of using this tech? We’ve got to see everything in the round, not just what’s in front of us.”

Keep on running: The White House’s solar panels are still in use today

White House

Symbolism is a huge part of US politics, and energy is one issue where it’s been a critical tool – as President Jimmy Carter showed by installing solar panels on the White House roof.

At the height of the energy crisis in June 1979, Carter unveiled 32 solar-thermal panels that had been installed on top of the East Wing. They were used until 1986 when they were removed for rooftop resurfacing. Then-President Ronald Reagan, a renewables sceptic, took the chance to snub his predecessor and ordered their disposal.

But that wasn’t their end of life or the end of solar energy at The White House.

The original panels were stored in a federal warehouse until they were bought by an environmental college in Maine, in 1991. The college fitted 16 of the panels to a café roof and has kept most of the rest.

President Carter will have the last – and longest – laugh; some of the original panels are destined to last well into the future, having been acquired by museums around the world, including The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.

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