A successful energy transition needs circular strategies


Climate, Energy & Sustainability

Picture of Sandra Rousseau
Sandra Rousseau

Professor at the CEDON Centre of Economics and Corporate Responsibility, KU Leuven

To achieve the currently set net-zero CO2 emissions policy objectives, we need to facilitate the transition to a low-carbon energy system based on renewable energy sources. In addition, the establishment of a circular and regenerative economic system will play a key role in achieving a long-term sustainable future. In its broadest sense, the circular economy can be considered a societal transition, in which the intensified circulation of materials contributes to generating sizeable economic, environmental and societal benefits. The energy transition and the circular transition are not only two cornerstones of the European Green Deal, but they also have mutually reinforcing effects. Therefore, this dual transition process has to be taken into account during the design, implementation and monitoring phases of climate policies. Specifically, a successful energy transition needs circular strategies to ensure resource availability and minimise end-of-life effects, while a successful circular transition needs clean and abundant energy inputs.

The circular transition highlights the importance of considering the full life cycle of energy services: the production process, the use phase and the end-of-life phase. The energy transition will accelerate the demand for the materials that are the building blocks of renewable energy production, which requires wind turbines, electric vehicles and solar panels, among other things. The global supply chains for these materials such as copper and rare earth elements thus need to be expanded quickly. For example, according to a 2022 S&P Global study, a battery electric car requires at least 2.5 times more copper than a car with an internal combustion engine, while solar and offshore wind need at least two times more copper per megawatt of installed capacity than power generated using natural gas. As another example, in 2022, the International Energy Agency projected that demand for lithium would increase sixfold to 500 kilotonnes by 2030, requiring the equivalent of 50 new average-sized mines. It is clear that generating a sufficient supply of virgin materials will be a huge challenge due to resource scarcity, geopolitical tensions and the need for technological breakthroughs related to, for instance, energy storage techniques. The circular transition can provide a – partial – solution to this challenge as recycled materials can substitute virgin materials and resource-efficient product design can limit overall resource demand.

It is important for the EU to become a major player in the market for recycled solar panel and wind turbine

Besides the challenges in building the technological infrastructure to allow the provision of zero-carbon energy services, the rapid growth in renewable energy installations ensures that end-of-life waste will become a critical problem. For instance, the blade waste from wind turbines is predicted to amount to several hundred thousand tonnes within the next decade. The composite found in the blades is a fibre-reinforced polymer, which allows the aerodynamic shape and high mechanical performance, but makes recycling a significant challenge. Still, the fibreglass can be used in building materials such as cement or the decommissioned blades can be repurposed entirely in new structures such as noise barriers for highways. In addition, end-of-life solar panels may become a significant source of hazardous waste. According to a 2019 study published in Renewable Energy, roughly 9.8mn tonnes of solar panel waste are expected to accumulate between 2030 and 2060. Solar panels are built for durability in a wide variety of weather conditions and consist of a complex sandwich of metals, semiconductors, polymers and glass. This makes them difficult to disassemble and recycle.

As many of these recycling and recovery technologies are not yet mature enough, may face significant logistic challenges or are only limited available at industrial scale, policymakers may look into stimulating the further development and diffusion of these recycling, repurpose and reuse options. After all, it is important for the EU to become a major player in the market for recycled solar panel and wind turbine materials as it is expected to grow exponentially over the next several years.

To conclude, building a more circular economy is essential for the energy transition since it enables the use of low-carbon materials, reduces reliance on mining and ensures the long-term use of critical minerals required for low-carbon energy technologies, such as solar panels and energy storage systems. Linking both systems and taking feedback loops into account are thus key elements that need to be addressed systematically in policy development and implementation.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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