China will set up a new system to recycle old wind turbines and solar panels as the world’s biggest renewables user and producer prepares for millions of tonnes of tech to reach the end of its lifecycle.
Several Chinese institutions, including its National Development and Reform Commission, announced this week that new rules and standards on how to dismantle and recycle wind and solar facilities will be drawn up.
The country is aiming to have a “basically mature” full-process recycling system for wind turbines and solar panels by 2030.
That is likely to prove a stiff challenge, given that early generations of renewable energy equipment were not designed with the same focus on sustainability as latest models, which are only just introducing recyclability in key components such as blades.
China is the largest user and manufacturer of renewable energy equipment in the world, reportedly boasting around 1,161GW of installed capacity. Goldman Sachs estimated it will hit 3,300GW of wind and solar by 2030, almost tripling its current goal.
Solar panels and wind turbines usually last around 20-25 years and many of China’s were installed in the early 2000s. As such, while the country steams ahead with its astonishing renewables growth, it is also having to face up to its first generation of wind and solar facilities coming to the end of their lifecycle.
By 2030, China will reportedly need to recycle 1.5 million metric tons of PV modules. Ten years later, around 250GW of PV modules and 280GW of wind capacity are expected to need retiring. By 2050, China will reportedly need to replace around 20 million tonnes of PV modules alone.
If this mammoth load of renewables tech were chucked in landfills it could contaminate the soil and groundwater. Incinerating it would meanwhile release significant amounts of greenhouse gases and potentially toxic substances.
Renewables players have increasingly made strides to make their green energy tech more sustainable. A Chinese wind turbine maker recently unveiled a large-scale blade fabricated almost entirely from recycled materials, the first such model in Asia.
RWE has recently fitted two offshore wind farms with recyclable turbine components in the UK and German North Sea. GE-owned LM Wind Power has meanwhile developed the prototype of an ‘eco-design’ wind turbine blade fashioned from thermoplastics and a new-generation recyclable resin.
Vestas has unveiled a new chemical process to recycle conventional epoxy-based turbine blades that it said could speed up “by decades” the ability to re-use the giant components. A 2020 report published by WindEurope found that while 85%-95% of turbines are recyclable, the blades are specifically challenging.