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Circular Economy- Recycling Renewables

It’s high time the renewable energy industry became active members of the circular economy, says Calum Innes.

Anyone who remembers the Brent Spar episode will appreciate the importance of energy companies cleaning up after them – and the potential for controversy. 

That was all about decommissioning a floating oil storage installation in the North Sea after its time had come. Despite independent scientific support for Shell’s proposals, it lost the PR debate following a slick campaign by Greenpeace. The energy group learned lessons and changed its approach to offshore decommissioning in the UK and how it operated everywhere.

Similar considerations apply today and potentially more so, given growing public concern over conservation and how human activity affects the world and everything in it. And it’s not only oil companies that are in the spotlight but increasingly, those who proclaim their green credentials. 

For all its environmental benefits, renewable energy is of limited use if solar panels and wind turbine blades go straight to landfill after generating their last kWh. There was a time companies made things, marketed and sold them without much thought about what happens where they’re surplus to requirements. Those days are over.

In advanced economies, strict regulation dictates how electronics, chemicals, plastics and vehicle parts are removed from the supply chain. Questions about end-of-life disposal and the potential for recycling rank alongside revenues and return on investment for manufacturing and trading businesses and their financial backers. The circular economy is here to stay. 

Not long ago we told in Energy Matters of how experts at the University of Strathclyde were working on a process to give new life to redundant wind-turbine blades that would otherwise go to landfill. The institution’s Advanced Composites Group is developing a technology to recycle the giant glass-fibre sails as high-value material for vehicle manufacture, construction and aviation.

As wind farms became more efficient at generating low-carbon electricity, demand for turbines will continue to grow along with their dimensions – and the need to dispose of blades responsibly at the end of their useful lives.

Researchers at the University of Leeds advocate the application circular economy principles to reduce the environmental cost of low-carbon infrastructure such as offshore wind turbines, solar panels and batteries – all of which are required if the UK is to achieve its net-zero carbon targets. 

Dr Anne Velenturf of the university’s School of Civil Engineering estimates that failing to learn from the mistakes of oil and gas and nuclear infrastructure decommissioning could lead to the low-carbon infrastructure sector incurring significant losses of carbon savings and a clean-up bill up to four to 10 times higher than anticipated by industry. 

She says:

It is important to learn from previous decommissioning experiences and enable the integration of circular economy approaches into the design, operation and end-of-use management of low carbon infrastructure sectors

At Galbraith, I spend much time considering the future decommissioning costs of renewable energy developments at the end of their operational life. Unfortunately, the development of appropriate process and technology to maximise value, energy and recovery of finite resources from recyclables is not being pursued at the rate these assets are being deployed.  The lessons of Brent Spar should not be forgotten and I concur with Dr Velenturf’s views – the big surprise is, this needs to be pointed out to the renewable energy industry.