In the past decade, solar panels, wind turbines, and lithium-ion batteries have boomed in production volume and plummeted in price. That’s enabled many countries to accelerate the transition to lower-carbon electricity. It’s also helped electric vehicles become more mainstream, an important step in the push to decarbonize transportation.
To keep global warming from reaching catastrophic levels, production of these clean energy technologies will need to be scaled up by orders of magnitude in the coming decade.
Making all of this happen should be the first priority of anyone who cares about the fate of life on Earth, writes Canary Media. But there’s another pressing priority that can’t be overlooked: A lot of the equipment that will make this crucial transition possible—and the valuable materials used to make it—could end up in landfills.
If it’s not reused and recycled, this waste could wreak havoc on ecosystems and communities. It could also mean missing out on an accessible source of critical raw materials like lithium and cobalt, which are costly to mine and often produced in environmentally and socially harmful ways.
Today, the volume of panels, turbine blades, and batteries nearing the end of their lives is relatively low. But that’s changing fast. Now is the time to ramp up recycling capacity so that it matches the growth of clean technologies that will occur over the next few decades.
By 2030, the U.S. is expected to be decommissioning about a million tonnes of solar panels per year, said Maria Curry-Nkansah, head of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s circular economy strategic initiative for advanced energy materials technology—and across the globe, the annual figure will be about eight million tonnes. The numbers only grow from there. The worldwide total of PV waste could increase nearly tenfold by 2050, to 78 million tonnes, according to the International Energy Agency.
Likewise, the roughly 600,000 tonnes of lithium-ion battery waste expected from the first generation of EVs by 2025 is set to grow to 11 million tonnes worldwide by 2030, according to the World Economic Forum. And the volume of wind turbine blades reaching end of life could hit 12 billion tonnes by 2050, according to a 2020 study in the Journal of Sustainable Metallurgy.
So what can we do today to avoid generating these gargantuan volumes of waste in the future? Experts say the only solution is an aggressive and coordinated effort to set government regulations and establish private sector investments that enable the recycling of clean energy technologies at massive scale.
It’s important to point out that there’s a categorical difference between the raw materials of the clean energy economy and those of the fossil-fueled economy. Renewable energy and energy storage systems don’t burn an irreplaceable resource and cause irreparable harm to the climate and environment in the process. Instead, they capture inexhaustible sources of energy—sunlight and wind.
But to be considered truly sustainable, these industries need to restructure themselves in ways that allow their products to be recycled at the end of their lives. That’s going to require government mandates to limit their wanton disposal, along with effective regulatory structures to incentivize the private sector to invest in businesses and infrastructure to collect, transport, disassemble, refine, reuse, and remanufacture their components.
It’s also going to demand a lot of innovation, from new technologies for breaking down and reconstituting the components of solar panels, turbine blades, and lithium-ion battery cells, to novel approaches to designing products that make their recycling simpler and safer at the end of their lives.
The Underlying Challenge of Raw Materials
To meet the skyrocketing U.S. and global demand for these clean energy technologies, supplies of key materials must expand dramatically. The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts a quadrupling of total mineral demand for clean energy technologies by 2040 under its Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), the pathway it prescribes for keeping global temperature rise well under 2°C. The projected demand trajectory for minerals used to make EVs and batteries is particularly dramatic—a greater than thirtyfold increase from today to 2040, with lithium demand growing more than fortyfold over the same time frame.
Recycling and reuse won’t come anywhere close to eliminating the need for mining and processing ever-larger amounts of these core materials. But they can certainly make a dent.
Take the example of batteries: By 2040, “recycled quantities of copper, lithium, nickel, and cobalt from spent batteries could reduce combined primary supply requirements for these minerals by around 10%,” according to an IEA report on clean energy minerals.
“In the next 10 to 15 years, recycling is a huge component of [sourcing] the materials we’re going to need for this clean energy transition,” said Megan O’Connor, CEO of Beverly, Massachusetts–based battery and minerals recycling startup Nth Cycle. “But even if we recycle 100% of the lithium-ion batteries we’re making” by 2030, “that only gets us approximately 10% of the cobalt we’re going to need.” This underscores the fact that recycling will be most effective in tandem with new technologies that reduce or eliminate the need for various metals.
Mining, refining, and transporting raw materials used in clean energy technologies is costly and energy-intensive. It can also be environmentally harmful and subject to unpredictable interruptions in supply. For example, about 70% of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it’s mined in ways that harm the environment and have led to human rights violations. Last year’s White House supply chain report states that China refines 60% of the world’s lithium and 80% of the world’s cobalt, which “presents a critical vulnerability to the future of the domestic U.S. auto industry.”
Recycling could dramatically reduce those costs and vulnerabilities. The ReCell Center, a battery recycling consortium led by the U.S. Department of Energy, says a ton of battery-grade lithium could be extracted from 750 tons of lithium brine, 250 tons of lithium ore, or just 28 tons of recycled lithium-ion batteries. The metrics are even better for recycled versus mined and refined cobalt, a key ingredient of today’s most energy-dense lithium-ion batteries.
And the more sophisticated methods of recycling batteries that are beginning to emerge offer the potential to dramatically decrease energy and water use and emissions of toxic byproducts like sulphur dioxide, according to ReCell.
But a lot needs to happen for these more sophisticated recycling methods to flourish, said Garvin Heath, a senior environmental scientist and member of the resources and sustainability group at NREL’s Strategic Energy Analysis Center. The fundamental barrier right now, “especially in the U.S., is that without a government mandate to recycle, there are no economies of scale yet, and costs are high,” he said.
“We’ve done some cost modeling of PV recycling systems, and indeed, they don’t return the value greater than the cost,” he said. “Anecdotally, we’ve heard those costs range from $15 to $30 per module after delivery to the recycling centre.” That amounts to roughly one-tenth the cost of a new solar module.
That’s much higher than the cost to dump the materials in a landfill, Heath said. The secret to making recycling a cost-effective proposition thus lies not only in reducing the costs and increasing the value of recycling but also in increasing the costs of discarding end-of-life clean energy technologies in landfills—or outlawing it altogether.
The Role of Regulations
So far, the European Union has taken the global lead in implementing recycling regulations, especially for solar panels and lithium-ion batteries.
For nearly a decade, EU member states have been required to recycle 85% of the materials used in solar panels under the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive. The costs of this work are covered by upfront fees on panels entering the European Union, and country-by-country regulations govern how that recycling is managed. The first recycling plant dedicated to PV recycling was opened in France in 2018 by water and waste management conglomerate Veolia, and several more are now planned.
But recycling initiatives in the European Union aren’t yet capturing the full recyclable value of solar panels, however, said Saloni Sachdeva Michael, a solar PV recycling policy expert and German Chancellor Research Fellow with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. That’s because the EU’s regulations are based on collecting and recycling a certain percentage of solar panels based on their weight, which allows recyclers to meet the targets by recycling just the glass and aluminum—the heaviest parts of every panel.
That leaves out the recovery of the critical materials including silicon, copper, and silver that are contained in the electricity-generating parts of the panels, she said. “There are a number of pilots going on in Europe” to extract these materials economically, “but as far as I know there is no commercially scalable process.”
Even so, Europe is still far ahead of the United States, which lacks any federal-level policy or mandate around solar panel recycling. In fact, only 15 states in the U.S. have bans on landfill disposal of electronic consumer devices that could include solar panels, according to a 2021 NREL study.
As for state-level solar recycling policies, only Washington state has passed a law to require solar manufacturers to cover the costs of recovering and recycling solar panels, and implementation of that law has been delayed for years. U.S. solar leader California has recently taken the less aggressive but still useful step of categorizing solar panels as “universal waste,” which could make collection and recycling less costly and complex than for items categorized as hazardous waste. New York state is exploring a similar change.
Lithium-ion battery recycling policies are also far more advanced in Europe than in the U.S., NREL’s Heath said. The EU has a litany of requirements for the reuse and recycling of battery materials, as well as requiring manufacturers to design batteries to be more easily recycled and mandating that new batteries include a minimum amount of recycled content. By 2027, battery and vehicle manufacturers will need to provide easily accessible information on the quantities and sources of cobalt, lithium, nickel, and lead in every battery sold.
Adding to an existing framework of regulations, these new mandates are spurring significant investments in battery recycling in Europe. Umicore, the Belgium-based global minerals and materials processing company, launched the world’s first industrial-scale lithium-ion battery recycling facility in 2011. It now recovers copper, cobalt, and nickel in volumes of 7,000 tonnes per year, and has expanded into lithium recovery as well, a company spokesperson said in an email. Umicore has inked battery recycling agreements with automakers Audi, BMW, Volkswagen, and Tesla in Europe.
The U.S., by contrast, doesn’t even have consistent state-by-state regulations for the collection and disposal of batteries used in consumer electronics, let alone EV batteries. No federal or state laws require the recycling of EV batteries or assign responsibility for funding that recycling, Heath said. California is the furthest ahead in developing such regulations; it has an advisory group that recommended policies on EV battery recycling to the state legislature earlier this year. North Carolina and New Jersey have created similar commissions.
At the federal level, a bill that would set up a similar task force to develop regulatory pathways for battery recycling has so far failed to advance in Congress. The infrastructure law passed by Congress in 2021 contained several billion dollars in R&D grants for battery recycling and materials processing, but it lacks funding to scale up recycling.
This slow progress could put U.S. automakers and battery manufacturers at risk of being disadvantaged in markets like the EU that set strict recyclability and recycled content mandates on products being sold within their borders, said Emily Burlinghaus, a German Chancellor Fellow based at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies. “The EU is the second-largest market for EV sales,” she said.
In the absence of a domestic tracking and compliance mandate for sustainable battery manufacturing, the U.S. Global Battery Alliance, a group of more than 100 institutions including U.S. automakers and miners like Tesla, Rivian, and Controlled Thermal Resources, is stepping in to develop a “battery passport” program that could fill in the gaps, Burlinghaus added.
If U.S.-based recyclers are ever to gain a global competitive standing, regulatory support will be vital. Today, most electronics recycling is done outside the U.S., much of it in environmentally hazardous ways. China, which dominates the world’s primary lithium-ion battery materials industry, also hosts the majority of the world’s nascent lithium-ion battery recycling capacity.
“There are lots of critical pieces of the supply chain—not just mining, not just refining—that have gone to China,” Nth Cycle’s O’Connor noted. “Now we’re trying to claw it back.”
The Economics of Recycling Clean Energy Technologies
Regulations are essential to spur the growth of the complex chain of businesses needed to drive down recycling costs, said Thea Soule, chief commercial officer at Ecobat. A global recycler of lead-acid car batteries, Ecobat is now applying what it has learned in its main line of business to the task of recycling lithium-ion batteries.
“When we think about the economies around recycling [lead-acid] batteries, the ability for technology to catch up with the inherent value of that metal was crucial to create this positive feedback loop” of scale and profitability, Soule said.
About 99% of all lead-acid batteries are recycled in the U.S. today, she said. That’s the result of decades of public policy and private sector investment working together. Most states prohibit the disposal of lead-acid batteries in landfills, and many require auto dealers or manufacturers to retrieve and recycle them. Most lead-acid batteries share the same simple roster of materials and form factors, allowing simple disassembly, often in automated facilities.
Those processes are tightly regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to mitigate risks to workers and the environment. And the lead that comes out the other end is of high quality, allowing it to be sold for a tidy profit.
But lithium-ion batteries are a far different prospect. They include a multitude of different chemistries that are under continuous development and come in different form factors, from consumer electronics and power tools to EVs and stationary storage applications. The U.S. lacks any common regulations or standards for how lithium-ion batteries can be diverted to recyclers in volumes needed to reach profitable scale.
What’s more, lithium-ion batteries can overheat, catch fire, and explode if improperly handled, earning them a “hazardous materials” designation from the EPA. Developing standards to manage collection, transportation, and secondary market creation for end-of-life EV batteries “is a big piece of the challenge,” Curry-Nkansah said.
The uncertainty, risk, and complexity of managing this type of waste make it hard for any single company to confidently invest in the lithium-ion recycling chain. To date, the U.S. recycling rate for lithium-ion batteries of all categories is less than 20%, Soule said.
“That statistic is a lot different in Europe because of the regulations around recycling and end of life,” which “encourage a nascent market to become efficient and allow the technology to catch up,” she said.
The U.S. landscape is starting to change on this front, though, driven by the Biden administration’s efforts to secure domestic battery manufacturing and supply chains and a growing recognition from U.S. automakers of the importance of building recyclability into their plans.
Li-Cycle, a start-up that went public via a special purpose acquisition company merger last year, has a deal with Ultium Cells, the battery joint venture of General Motors and LG Chem, and is planning a recycling facility near Ultium’s Ohio battery plant. It’s also working with mining giant Glencore, which invested US$200 million in Li-Cycle last month.
Redwood Materials, the battery recycling start-up founded by Tesla co-founder JB Straubel that raised more than $700 million from investors, is planning to invest more than $1 billion in facilities to produce battery anodes and cathodes from recycled and “sustainably mined” materials. It has a partnership with Ford and is working with Ford and Volvo to fund the free collection of spent EV batteries in California. (Read more about Li-Cycle, Redwood, and other companies recycling lithium-ion batteries.)
Both of these start-ups are promising their technologies can recover, on average, more than 95% of the valuable constituent materials of lithium-ion batteries. But they haven’t yet revealed data on the costs of their recycling processes or sourcing batteries.
A recent analysis from Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a leading global metals analysis firm, identified what it called the “multiple threats” that might prevent lithium-ion battery recycling from reaching scale and profitability in the U.S. They include low collection rates from customers, a highly heterogeneous range of battery chemistries and formats to deal with, and a varied and uncertain value for the metals that can be recovered from the process.
“This variability around what is a lithium-ion battery makes it difficult for you to value and perform the operation of recycling, because your extraction techniques can vary widely,” Ecobat’s Soule said.
Can these processes of collection, transport, disassembly, and core recycling produce end materials at a price the market can bear? It’s a highly complex calculation. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has developed a tool to model battery recycling costs and environmental impacts, dubbed EverBatt. It can put some hard figures to the task of assessing the cost-effectiveness of various recycling approaches at different scales and stages of process improvement, as well as under a variety of pricing scenarios for different metals and chemicals.
In an ironic twist, some efforts to lower upfront costs and environmental impacts of the raw materials used in clean energy technologies may also reduce their recycling value. Lithium-ion battery makers are working on designs that use less cobalt and more lower-cost metals like zinc or iron, for example—a step that could significantly reduce the costs and harms stemming from cobalt mining, but also remove one of the highest-value metals from the list of those that can be recovered by recyclers.
From Recycling to a Circular Economy?
Finding ways to recycle solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, and other clean energy products as they’re made today is a pressing issue. But just as important is redesigning products on the front end so that their end-of-life recyclability is as simple and cost-effective as possible.
“We need a well-considered approach that includes applying circular economy principles for resource management and supply chain resiliency,” Curry-Nkansah said. NREL’s research on the circular economy for clean energy materials is aimed at developing new materials with lower costs and lower environmental impacts and extending their useful lives. It also promotes the concepts of “remanufacture” and “reuse”—disassembling and putting back together products and their individual components without breaking them down to their constituent elements, as recycling does.
NREL’s circular economy work also includes research into how to make products that use fewer and different materials in ways that reduce total carbon and waste emissions, as well as how to more efficiently manage their decommissioning, collection, and transport to lower the costs of returning them to the supply chain.
For batteries, NREL has been focusing much of its research on “direct recycling,” Curry-Nkansah said—a term for a process that leaves battery cathodes intact instead of shredding them so they can be reused in new batteries. This can allow for the reuse of a broader array of battery component materials, including cathodes for battery chemistries such as lithium iron phosphate that are cheaper to produce but worth less to recyclers.
The EU’s battery regulations take circularity into account with their emphasis on designing lithium-ion EV batteries that can both use recycled content and be more easily recycled at end of life. Umicore, BMW, and Swedish lithium-ion battery manufacturer Northvolt are working on a “closed life cycle loop” battery facility aimed at putting these principles into practice.
A number of researchers and companies are exploring how to design solar panels made of more durable and less toxic materials in configurations that allow for easier disassembly or simpler reuse or recycling options. Manufacturers of wind turbines are undergoing similar efforts with composite fiberglass blades, which are difficult and costly to disassemble or recycle today.
To make all of this happen, manufacturers of solar panels, wind turbine blades, and lithium-ion batteries will need compelling reasons to prioritize these potentially costly design and materials decisions. That will require public policies that discourage private sector parties from ignoring these factors in a quest to lower costs and compete for market share, and encourage them to work together on designing products that offer financial as well as environmental rewards.
The ultimate goal is to create a true “circular economy” for these devices, Heath said. “We have to [recycle]—eventually products get to end of life.” But given the massive growth in clean energy technologies and the resulting demand for raw materials, “recycling should be the last choice, basically.”
This story originally appeared on Canary Media and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story. Click here for the rest of their special series on recycling renewables.