Canada should implement policies to recycle materials from solar panels and wind turbines as it builds up renewable energy infrastructure to reach its 2050 net-zero commitments, say two Canadian energy policy experts.
As a growing volume of decommissioned solar and wind installations becomes part of waste streams, write Stephanie Cairns and Phil McKay, the renewables industry must become “zero-waste champions” by applying circular economy principles, where components are shared, leased, repaired, or refurbished for as long as possible to reduce waste.
Then the sector must recycle components and end-of-life materials “to the greatest extent possible,” they add, to reduce the greenhouse gas and material intensity of wind turbines and solar panels.
As with some other electronics, the responsibility for recycling can be assigned to product importers and sellers, Cairns and McKay advise in a post for Policy Options. As well, new business models should look to lease, rather than sell, materials or technologies.
For now, materials from retired wind and solar installations are entering waste streams in volumes too low to elicit specialized domestic recycling. But the International Energy Agency and the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices project that Canada will need to “dramatically increase its deployment of wind, solar, and storage technologies” to meet climate goals. Developing infrastructure for that deployment will require both common, readily recycled materials as well as “critical and strategic minerals and metals.”
Projections suggest a 60-fold increase in accumulated end-of-life solar photovoltaic modules, and a 30-fold increase in wind turbines, by 2050.
Canada does not currently have any facilities or regulations for recovering materials from decommissioned renewable energy systems, but Alberta and British Columbia are starting to approach the issue by including solar panels in their electronics recycling .There are several similar steps Canada can take to develop a circular economy approach in the renewable energy sector, write Cairns and McKay. New investment and policies are needed to support specialized recycling infrastructure and address technological, regulatory, and financial barriers to the transition. They also call for more research to quantify the expected volumes and characteristics of future end-of-life materials.
“By embracing circular economy approaches to manage the flow of materials on a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ basis, the renewable energy sector in Canada can become a champion of a zero-waste as well as a net-zero-carbon future,” they write.