IRENA calls for greater circularity in renewable energy sector

“If we adopt effective renewable energy circularity and waste management regulation, we will move towards more sustainable lifecycle practices and improved resource efficiency for the energy transition.”

So said Francesco La Camera, Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in the opening of the Public-Private Dialogue on circular economy and end-of-life management considerations for renewables.

La Camera added: “We should feel the responsibility to shift from a linear tech make-waste economy. Our actions can not contribute to further environmental degradation but rather make the difference.”

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IRENA expects global cumulative PV waste will increase from 4 million tonnes in 2030 to almost 50 million tonnes in 2040 and 200 million tonnes in 2050. For this reason, regulation for PV waste classification, recycling mandates, and improved data collection and reporting are vital to minimise the impact of this waste.

Solar and wind leading circular advancements

Jose Donoso, Chair of the Global Solar Council, emphasised that the solar industry is prioritising recycling and was, in fact, the first renewable sector to create a voluntary recycling mechanism to encourage a circular economy. Moving forward, said Donoso, “it’s important that the next panels to be installed are designed by designers who take into account the recyclability. These panels must be recycled. We must construct these panels to ensure we can recover as much of the materials as possible.”

Ben Backwell, CEO of Global Wind Energy Council, commented on the wind sector’s focus on circularity: “Achieving sustainability in the wind industry is an absolute must. Investors, customers and society will not tolerate an industry which on the one hand is decarbonising, but on the other hand, is causing environmental damage.”

Backwell unpacked the proactive measure the industry is adopting to ensure a circular supply chain, with 90% of turbine materials already being recyclable. He explained that as turbines reach end-of-life, there is a ready-made revenue stream available to be tapped through commercial recycling of waste streams.

“The part requiring the most action is the blade of the turbine which represents 10% of the mass. It’s made up of layers of composite materials, which means it’s hard to separate into commercial waste streams. Although they are non-toxic, this part that goes into landfill and needs to be eliminated.”

More complexity around hydropower end-of-life strategies

Eddie Rich, CEO of the International Hydropower Association added his views on the status and outlook for end-of-life management in hydropower. “The fact is nobody really knows how long a hydropower plant runs for. We usually talk about 60 to 100 years… it’s a different approach that we use looking at the three R’s: refurbish, retrofit and remove.”

Rich framed hydropower lifecycle emissions over time, explaining that over a 100-year period, emissions are very low. It is, however, large infrastructure with legacy issues that need to be addressed.

Progress in the sector has been made. The San José Declaration on Sustainable Hydropower has gone a long way to set out a manifesto to drive sustainability in the sector through standards, said Rich.

Moving forward, however, more action is needed for the private sector. “You have to establish an appropriate decommissioning plan right from the development phase, secondly, we need to continue making existing dams useful through retrofit and refurbish, thirdly, we need to establish more good practice guidance on decommissioning …,” said Rich.

He added that for the public sector, an attractive environment for investment must be ensured to combat the high upfront capital costs.

Ocean energy joins the circularity discussion

Contributing to the discussion on behalf of the nascent ocean energy sector, Rémi Gruet, CEO of Ocean Energy Europe, described how a favourable legislative framework is putting the sector in a good place in terms of circularity.

“Early-stage decommissioning is included in every ocean energy project from the beginning, even for prototype projects, with the financing package including funds to remove the turbines from the water,” said Gruet.

Europe’s policy perspective

Kadri Simson, European Commissioner for Energy, elaborated on how the EU is dealing with renewable waste management. Simson said: “New renewable energy targets mean more installations and infrastructure and this creates challenges in terms of resources and waste.”

Image: IRENA

Simson highlighted the solar and energy storage legislative initiatives that will foster circularity in Europe and tackle future waste challenges, as well as support achieving the EU Green Deal objectives.

“In 2018, when we started preparing our Green Deal proposal, we began assessing possible scenarios to achieve climate neutrality. This included the focus of the creation of a circular economy and showed that scaling up circularity will make a decisive contribution to achieving neutrality by 2050 and at the same time, will ensure the long term competitiveness of the EU.

“Products that follow circular economy principles can substantially increase energy and material efficiency over the product lifetime, while also reducing consumer costs and pollution. It also substantially decreases the need for resource extraction and processing, which accounts for half of total greenhouse gas emissions and more than 90% of biodiversity loss.”

“Furthermore, it creates employment opportunities related to repair, reuse and remanufacturing, stimulating less harmful economic activity.”

The dialogue took place in the lead-up to the Twelfth Session of IRENA’s Assembly, which will take place virtually on the 15th and 16th of January, at the start of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

The aim of the session was to explore the economic and societal benefits of a circular economy and to mobilise action to achieve these gains, through effective policy frameworks and industry commitments.

The entire session was recorded and is available on demand.

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