The renewable energy industry needs to adopt the ideas of a circular economy, where equipment is designed to be reused or remanufactured when it reaches the end of its operational life
Doing so would reduce the environmental cost of low-carbon infrastructure – such as offshore wind turbines, solar panels and batteries – which are required if the UK is to achieve its net-zero carbon targets.
The technologies often use copper, rare earth metals and novel composites which are damaging because of the way they are extracted and processed.
A new study, published in the journal Sustainable Production and Consumption, has found that industry is giving little consideration to what will happen to this infrastructure at the end of its service life – which for some technologies will be within the next decade.
An indepth review of plans and practices of the offshore wind industry showed that current practices rely on recycling, ‘sustainable incineration’ or – in some countries – material going into landfill sites. Such solutions hold limited sustainability benefits.
It is increasingly important for decommissioning to be seen as a point of system regeneration, not an end point.
In a perfect world we would have in the region of 10 years to innovate and scale up industrial solutions that can ensure sustainable and resource conserving solutions for offshore windfarms and many other low carbon technologies.
Given the early stage in which many of the end-of-use solutions still are, that is not a lot of time.
In the paper, we argue that renewable technologies must be “designed for durability, reuse and remanufacturing.” Our analysis found that industry “decommissioning plans for offshore wind are at best formulaic and at worst perfunctory and provide no value to the growing movement toward a circular economy.”
At this time, millions of tonnes of composites, precious and rare earth materials are being extracted, processed and deployed in infrastructure with nothing in place that suggests these materials can be sustainably recovered, managed and returned to productive use at the potential scales required to meet accelerating low-carbon infrastructure deployment.
Because of the continuing need for low-carbon infrastructure, there is an added urgency for industry to develop sustainable approaches to resource management.
The renewables industry should embrace the idea of a circular economy. It is an approach that lies at the heart of sustainability, where technology design involves considering how equipment can be repaired and maintained to extend its operational life – and once it reaches the end of its service life, can be disassembled, reused, remanufactured and recycled.
The licensing of windfarms should include requirements for sustainable decommissioning.
Low-carbon infrastructure risks falling into the same mistakes as oil and gas and nuclear infrastructure decommissioning, resulting in significant losses of carbon savings and a clean-up bill that could be four to ten times higher than anticipated by industry.
It is important to learn from previous decommissioning experience and enable the integration of circular economy approaches into the design, operation and end-of-use management of low-carbon infrastructure sectors.
Developing sustainable end-of-use solutions will depend on collaboration between stakeholders in industry, government, civic sector, and research and innovation. The Resource Recovery from Waste programme has been building momentum for research on the interface of circular economy and low-carbon infrastructure.
A new EPSRC funded collaborative project has been started by the University of Leeds, the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult and the Department for International Trade to embed sustainable circular economy practices into the offshore wind sector.
*Dr Paul Jensen is an expert in low-carbon development in the Faculty of the Environment at Leeds University
**Dr Anne Velenturf is research impact fellow in circular economy and sustainable offshore wind development in the School of Civil Engineering at University of Leeds