The growing importance of wind and solar energy to the U.S. power grid, and the rise of electric vehicles, are all key to the nation’s growing need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, lower carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. As the Biden administration pushes for more wind power and solar energy, renewable energy industries will soon generate tons of waste as millions of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, wind turbines and lithium-ion EV batteries reach the end of their respective lifecycles.
Anticipating the pileup of exhausted clean-energy components and wanting to proactively avoid past sins committed by not responsibly cleaning up after decommissioned coal mines, oil wells and power plants, a number of innovative startups are striving to create a sustainable, and lucrative, circular economy to recover, recycle and reuse the core components of climate tech innovation.
Wind and solar energy combined to generate 13.6% of utility-scale electricity last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), and those numbers will undoubtedly rise as renewable energy continues to scale up.
Solarcycle is a prime example of the companies looking to solve this climate tech waste problem of the future. Launched last year in Oakland, California, it has since constructed a recycling facility in Odessa, Texas, where it extracts 95% of the materials from end-of-life solar panels and reintroduces them into the supply chain.
First Solar has maintained an in-house recycling program since 2005. But rather than extracting metals and glass from retired panels and manufacturing scrap, “our recycling process provides closed-loop semiconductor recovery for use in new modules,” according to chief product officer Pat Buehler.
Retired wind turbines present another recycling challenge, as well as business opportunities. Although the industry stalled over the past two years, the Biden administration’s pledge to jumpstart the nascent offshore wind sector is expected to turn this around.
Knoxville-based Carbon Rivers, founded in 2019, has developed technology to shred not only turbine blades but also discarded composite materials from the automotive, construction and marine industries and convert them through a pyrolysis process into reclaimed glass fiber. “It can be used for next-generation manufacturing of turbine blades, marine vessels, composite concrete and auto parts,” said chief strategy officer David Morgan.