Net-Zero by 2050? Our Energy Infrastructure Says Not So Fast.
By now, proponents of clean energy thought there would be far more to celebrate. Last November, over 120 world leaders gathered in Glasgow for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (also known as COP26) to discuss climate action and support, with many countries vowing to reduce their net carbon emissions to zero by the year 2050.
When Biden took office, his National Climate Task Force announced a target for the United States to achieve a 50-52 percent reduction from 2005 levels in economy-wide net greenhouse gas pollution in 2030. However, the supporting infrastructure for these massive targets seems to be lagging behind.
Countries like the US, the UK, and China have all formulated plans to increase investment in clean energy. Since taking office, the Biden administration has set numerous targets:
- The National Climate Task Force set a target for the US to achieve a 50-52 percent reduction from 2005 levels in economy-wide net greenhouse gas pollution by 2030.
- The administration aims to triple domestic solar manufacturing capacity by 2024 and is working to accelerate domestic production of clean energy technologies, including solar panel parts.
- Achieving climate resilient infrastructure
While the US and other countries that have signed the Paris Agreement have made noble commitments, the global economy is facing a turning point that could delay progress.
The energy infrastructure needed to meet the 2050 goal is highly vulnerable. Factors include:
- Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
- Supply chain disruptions
- The threat of a recession
- Infrastructure that is aging and past its lifespan
Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine has made countries realize the importance of clean energy and energy independence even more. President Biden and Ursula Von Der Leyen, President of the European Commission, recently released a joint statement condemning Russia for using natural gas as a political and economic weapon. In the press briefing, they say: “Russia’s energy coercion has put pressure on energy markets, raised prices for consumers, and threatened global energy security.” This crisis further underscores why now is the time to act and prioritize green energy over the global dependency on conventional energy.
Renewable Energy Infrastructure Challenges
The Recyclability of Wind Turbine Blades
Even though the intentions are noble, switching to renewable energy is full of challenges. In 2020, a group of diggers in Casper, Wyoming were photographed burying wind turbine blades. Renewable energy skeptics took this incident as proof that green energy is not that green after all. Although 90% of a turbine can be recycled, the materials within blades cannot be.
The University of Cambridge estimates that the waste generated by expired wind turbine blades will amount to 43 million tons. That is a huge addition to the already existing waste disposal and management problem. While some companies are beginning to act, more needs to be done to create a circular model for wind turbines.
A Circular Economy for Batteries
Battery energy storage systems are a key part of the energy transition. But lithium, by far the most commonly used chemical in energy storage batteries, will generate 2 million tons of waste per annum by 2030. If lithium makes its way into the environment, it can lead to contaminated soil and water and biodiversity loss. Unfortunately, lithium that is recovered from recycling is unable to be reused in energy storage batteries but can be put to other uses. To support a global transition to clean energy and reduce dependencies on conventional energy sources, a battery recycling industry needs to be supported.
Solar PV Module Recycling
Because solar panels often last beyond their 25-year lifespan, solar panel recycling hasn’t necessarily been a focus because most utility-scale projects in the US have been built within the last ten years. Still, long term success of the solar energy industry depends on effective recycling infrastructure.
A Sobering Finding: According to IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency), solar panel waste could accumulate to 78 million tons by the year 2050 if we don’t intervene now.
In Europe, the number of solar panels reaching their end of life is doubling every year. As a result, Europe has made more headway in solar panel recycling than the US. In 2018, the first European solar panel recycling plant was opened in France. A partnership between Veolia and PV Cycle, this plant processed 1,800 metric tons of materials in 2018 and “separates and recycles the panels’ components – everything from the glass to the aluminum frame, junction boxes and connection cables.”
Renewable Energy Infrastructure Designs Lead To More Waste
The reason renewable energy creates so much waste boils down to design choices. Wind turbines, solar panels, and lithium-ion batteries are designed to compete with fossil fuels. As a result, they use materials that are cost-effective and can generate more energy output. And thanks to these factors, renewable energy has been able to hit key milestones.
- A single wind turbine can now generate double the amount of power. This comes after 10 years of growth and research.
- Due to advancements in solar technology, solar panels are now more cost-effective than gas and coal in many countries around the world.
Today, renewable energy increasingly beats even the cheapest coal. Getting costs down to a level where renewables can realistically compete against conventional energy is essential to realizing a clean energy economy. But the design and material choices make recycling and reusing a challenge.
Most wind turbine blades are made from low-quality fiberglass and are often dumped in landfills after their use expires. As James Barry, CEO of Renewable Parts, puts it – the efforts to make the supply chain and the technology behind it greener does not equate to a green supply chain.
How to Source Materials in a “Green” Way
An energy system based on renewables should follow the principles of a circular economy. This means, the materials which go into the production of green energy should be reused or recycled. To design an infrastructure around this concept, the following steps should be taken –
Dependency on finite resources like rare metals should be minimized. This will also reduce impacts to climate change while improving business risk and biodiversity. Materials should be thoroughly inspected for reusability before being dumped altogether. In 2020, around 800,000 tons of copper were simply dumped in countries like Switzerland and Norway. The copper waste came in the form of vehicles, batteries and equipment.
Another example shows that the Swedish city of Norrköping has around 508 tons of copper lying idle in unused cables. That same amount of material can go towards constructing 780 offshore wind farms. So, the first step to a sustainable infrastructure is reusability.
Recycle Existing Material with Urban Mining
As governments around the world are pressuring companies to adopt renewable energy infrastructure, many companies are rising to the occasion. Oil companies like BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Eni have come up with an interesting solution. Instead of creating an infrastructure from scratch, they plan to recycle existing fuel-based infrastructure.
In the case of oil rig decommissioning, several tons of steel will become available. That steel can be recycled to produce mounts for solar panels and monopiles for wind turbines. But this calls for a secondary market which can collect and sell these recyclable industry materials. Naturally, supportive government policies will benefit the process.
Efforts like the WEEE Directive (Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment) in the UK can ensure proper recovery of used materials. These materials can come from discarded equipment, machinery and electronic gadgets. For example, indium is found in discarded mobile phones which is used in many solar panels.
This process of utilizing existing materials is called urban mining. It can greatly reduce the consumption of power used to manufacture new infrastructure. In addition, it will also eliminate the emissions associated with extra production.
The Solution in a Nutshell: A Circular Economy Based on Mining
Urban mining alone may not be enough for a sustainable infrastructure. This is largely due to the limitations of a linear economy. In a linear economy, extra waste is generated at every stage of the production process. The effort to harness this waste is a noble idea. It can even be a viable solution, but only in the short term. For a truly efficient clean energy infrastructure, a circular economy needs to be adopted.
In a circular model, the materials will be recycled and circulated, leading to reduction in waste and pollution. In addition, the World Economic Forum estimates that a transition to a circular model could create 100,000 new jobs and be worth a staggering US $1tn to the global economy by 2025.
To implement a circular economy, a number of important steps need to be taken –
- Government must create policies that support and incentivize a transition to a circular model while also holding the industry accountable.
- Companies should explore ways to design energy infrastructure with recycled and recoverable materials.
- Companies should research ways to extract additional resources from their waste streams.
When it comes to reaching net-zero goals, countries must move away from the linear model that is contributing to the climate crisis. Moving towards a circular economy with clean energy infrastructure will be key to mitigating climate change and hitting the 2050 goal.
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