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Recycling renewables – a green dilemma?

Governments across the globe have pushed renewable alternatives to fossil fuels in a bid to tackle climate change. In the UK, we saw a global hyperdrive for wind and solar generation in the first quarter of 2023. Wind power, in particular, generated 32.4% of UK electricity during this period, the first time in 100 years that the UK has not been primarily reliant on fossil fuels.

While they’re a significant part of the solution to tackling the climate crisis, wind turbines and solar panels pose an environmental dilemma of their own – recycling them is extremely challenging.

With lifespans of only 25 years, it’s an impending conundrum that the UK Government needs to address.

Solar panels

As the first generation of solar panels are expected to end in the next 5 to 10 years, experts warn that tonnes of solar panels could end up in landfill rather than recycled, due to the drastic lack of recycling infrastructure.

A small-scale Scunthorpe recycling plant is the only operation in the whole of the UK that specialises in recycling solar panels and they are currently only stockpiling them, until they reach a quantity that requires them to invest in the equipment to recycle them. Industrial scale recycling is limited to one place in the whole world - Return of Silicon Plant (ROSI) in Grenoble, France, whose opening appears to have been deferred to early 2024.

Almost all solar panels are currently going to landfill, with a select few being recycled via labour-intensive and expensive methods.

The toxic materials found in solar panels, such as lead or carcinogenic cadmium, are also a concern, as these can be almost completely washed out of the fragments of solar modules over a period of several months, for example by rainwater, which can contaminate soil and even drinking water.

Wind turbines

Like solar panels, the first wave of turbines will soon be reaching the end of their lives. While 96% of wind turbines are recyclable, their blades are not.

Made from a ‘composite’ of fibreglass and resin, they are incredibly difficult to breakdown, meaning tens of thousands of them will eventually end up in landfill, where they will take centuries to decompose or be incinerated - ironically polluting the atmosphere.

However, in February 2023, Danish wind company, Vestas, announced a ‘breakthrough solution’ that makes the blades recyclable. The process uses chemical technology to break them down into a liquid, which can be used to produce high quality materials and even new blades, using inexpensive, non-toxic chemicals that are readily available.

Life after death

Engineers across the world are now focusing efforts on designs that use biodegradable materials like thermoplastics, or materials that can be reconstituted at the end of their lives.

Needless to say, the environmental impact of wind turbines and solar panels - even in their current form - far outweighs the negative, in terms of the critical role they play in achieving net zero.

Start your net zero journey

At Control Energy Costs, we’re strong believers in reducing carbon emissions and we’re currently on our own carbon neutral journey.

If you’d like guidance on starting your net zero journey, please contact our net zero expert, Nigel Addison-Evans, on 07500 027 480 or email him at nigel.addison-evans@cec.uk.com.