Decommissioning Dilemmas: Navigating the End-of-Life Challenges in Clean Energy Sources

Planning, building, operating, or overhauling power plants has long been an emphasis in the power sector—and an important one, given that the creation of new power capacity plays an outsized role in fulfilling growing energy demand with implications for business value, infrastructure modernization, and economic growth.

The other side of the lifecycle—the comprehensive end-of-life (EOL) management, including decommissioning assets as they approach the end of their operational lifespan—is often more neglected. But as energy infrastructure ages and the transition gains more momentum driven by technology innovation, the magnitude and variety of challenges related to decommissioning are beginning to surface.

Much of the discussion about decommissioning has so far focused on fossil-fired power generation, mainly because coal and gas plants make up the lion’s share of recent retirements. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, for example, estimates 15.6 GW of coal and natural gas plants will retire in 2023, accounting for 98% of capacity retirements in the U.S. These retiring fossil-fired units—most built in the 1970s and 1980s—will undergo a complex multi-year process that includes power plant demolition, contamination clean up, remediation, and redevelopment.

However, experts have begun urging industry and policymakers to also proactively prepare for decommissioning of “clean energy sources,” including nuclear plants, renewable plants, and energy storage facilities, because these projects could require resolving a vastly different set of safety, security, ethical, economic, and regulatory challenges.

Nuclear Decommissioning Hinges on Adequate Resource Planning

In an April 2023 bulletin, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that almost half of the 410 nuclear power reactors in operation today may be permanently shut down by 2050 and must be decommissioned. So far, more than 200 nuclear power reactors worldwide have been retired from service, but only 21 of these have been fully decommissioned, the agency noted.

“Decommissioning is not complete until radioactive and other hazardous materials have been removed from the site, and the buildings and land which were formerly used as nuclear facilities have been prepared for new uses,” the IAEA said. The final step of the decommissioning process “involves extensive surveys to confirm the absence of any significant radioactivity on the site, enabling its release from regulatory control,” it says.

Nuclear plant decommissioning, however, usually requires a significant timespan and budget. The process typically takes 15 to 20 years—but it can take much longer—and costs typically range from $500 million to $2 billion and hinge on size and complexity, the agency said. Among the biggest challenges for the decommissioning industry is securing significant human and financial resources to implement decommissioning programs, some of which could run to the end of this century.

“For commercial facilities, funds have generally been set aside during operation to cover the costs of decommissioning,” the agency noted. “However, the decommissioning of a significant number of facilities is funded either directly or indirectly from state resources. In these cases, the availability or not of sufficient funding may delay such implementation.”

The IAEA, however, is optimistic that new and emerging technologies could improve decommissioning efficiency. These include the application of digital techniques to support planning and to optimize project implementation; greater use of remotely operated tools (such as drones and robotics) for the segmentation of plant components, material handling, measurements, and decontamination; the increased automation of waste management activities; and the use of artificial intelligence.

Emerging Decommissioning Hurdles for the Coming Surge of Renewables

Because solar panels and wind turbines typically have a useful life of about 20 to 30 years, experts have urged renewable energy project owners, developers, and other participants to plan for project end-of-life obligations. Solar PV decommissioning typically entails equipment removal, followed by reuse, recycling, and disposal of PV modules. In contrast, wind farm decommissioning comprises more steps, including site preparation, laydown of the blades, hub, and other wind turbine components, disassembling and cutting, then material management, and site rehabilitation.

According to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), some of the biggest challenges faced by the solar, wind, as well as lithium-ion battery storage industries relate to managing EOL waste volumes. The independent power-industry research entity suggests that by 2030, global cumulative EOL PV panels could soar to 8 million metric tons (equivalent to 1.2 million dumpsters). By 2050, those numbers could grow to 78 million metric tons (12 million dumpsters).

“EOL management of existing energy technologies is increasingly viewed as an opportunity to maximize [return on investment] of the critical materials within them; however, only a limited number of EOL management processes are currently in place across the range of technology vendors and project developers, and the extent to which they meet utility sustainability, certification, and liability requirements varies,” EPRI notes. So far, a range of stakeholders, including technology industries, waste management and recycling industries, electric utilities, and environmental regulators “actively recognize future waste volumes as a resource to be reused rather than to be disposed,” EPRI added. However, as “EOL volumes of solar PV panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicle and grid-scale battery energy storage systems increase, electric utilities are attempting to identify how to responsibly and cost-effectively manage these materials.”

For solar panels, at least, custom PV recycling options are emerging to recover high-value materials like silver, copper, and silicon. Still, according to U.S. Department of Energy data from 2022, recycling prices hover at roughly $15 to $45 per module, “which is an order of magnitude higher than disposal in a landfill fee, which is roughly $1–$5 per module,” EPRI noted. The organization’s technical briefs suggest that as a good practice, utilities should identify the need to plan for decommissioning solar PV early during project development, which could allow for “several actions at the point of facility design and procurement to reduce risks and influence options for asset management.”

Wind’s Biggest EOL Challenge: Blades

EOL management for wind farms could also prove costly owing to future logistical, regulatory, and economic challenges. While industry group American Clean Power (ACP) estimates that up to 80% to 94% of a wind turbine—including its concrete, steel, and copper—can be readily recycled, the fiberglass composites that makeup blades and nacelles are currently difficult to recycle. “The commercially available [EOL] options for wind turbine blades are currently limited to a few downcycling processes (i.e., the recycled material is of lower quality and functionality than the original material), landfill, and a small number of novel reuse and repurposing solutions,” ACP says.

However, ACP suggests the wind industry is acutely aware of the projected increase in EOL waste material from decommissioned wind farms. The standard lifetime of an onshore wind farm is about 20 to 25 years, and a 2017 study ACP cites estimates that if global wind asset additions satisfy projections of about 100 GW per year by 2050, the industry could grapple with 43 million tons of cumulative blade waste. The study suggests that China would lead wind turbine blade waste at 40%, Europe at 25%, the U.S. at 16%, and the rest of the world at 19%.

1. In 2022, RWE became the first commercial, large-scale offshore developer to install Siemens Gamesa’s fully RecyclableBlade, with several blades being utilized in the Kaskasi offshore wind power project located 35 kilometers north of the island of Heligoland in the German North Sea. The Kaskasi project uses 81-meter-long RecyclableBlades on the selected SG 8.0-167 DD offshore wind turbines. Courtesy: RWE Renewables

For now, the wind industry is actively and collaboratively investigating options to make disposal more sustainable to design a truly circular economy of composite materials. At the top of its prioritized waste management hierarchy is prevention (via redesigning blades for recycling and lifetime extensions), followed by resale for second-hand reuse, then upcycling and recycling (Figure 1). Recycling options include mechanical processes, such as cutting, grinding, and crushing; chemical ones, including solvolysis and high-voltage fragmentation; and thermal ones, including pyrolysis and microwave pyrolysis. Materials recovery, another option, involves incineration with heat recovery through co-processing in a cement kiln.

Landfilling “ranks the lowest because there is no material recovery,” ACP notes. “It is also the cheapest option for blade disposal, where permitted by regulations.” But in many locations, blade disposal in a landfill may be the only option because transporting the blades to a recycling facility is cost-prohibitive. “However, while safe for the environment and the public, disposing of blades in landfills is not a viable long-term option,” the industry group says.

To spur development of more sustainable and circular EOL options, Europe’s wind industry trade group WindEurope in 2021 urged a Europe-wide landfill ban on decommissioned wind turbines by 2025, notes ACP. The effort actively “commits the industry to re-use, recycle, or recover 100% of decommissioned blades,” the group says. “This initiative may eventually extend to other parts of the world. In the U.S., some states have pursued legislation that would either ban landfill disposal of blades or require a percentage of blade waste to be reclaimed by manufacturers through a take-back program.”

To ensure more efficient recycling, wind turbine manufacturers are currently developing alternative resin systems, such as a new thermoset resin that can be easily separated from fibers in lower-cost recycling processes. “Manufacturers are also developing reversible, recyclable thermoplastic resins that support stronger, less expensive, and longer wind turbine blades, which in turn would increase energy capture and blade reliability and recyclability while decreasing energy and transportation costs,” ACP says.

New Specific Decommissioning Requirements

The renewables industry, meanwhile, is exposed to a shifting regulatory landscape that could impose new requirements for end-stage renewable projects. A legal analysis issued by global law firm Lewis Roca in July suggests 36 states have pending legislation or regulations governing renewables decommissioning. “Some states focus exclusively on financial assurance requirements to ensure that end-of-life obligations are funded, while others also mandate specific regulatory standards for decommissioning efforts,” said Dietrich Hoefner, partner at Lewis Roca, co-lead of the firm’s Renewable Energy End-of-Life Planning Group, and co-author of the report. “Some states require the submission of detailed decommissioning plans, some provide for government monitoring and approval of decommissioning efforts, and some focus heavily on land reclamation.”

The law firm suggests that industry should pay attention to the evolving requirements to avoid costly missteps. “Given the variety of requirements (whether statutory, regulatory, contractual or otherwise) and the potential for overlap and conflict between these requirements—and uncertainty around future regulations and costs, failure to carefully plan for decommissioning considerations could result in significant unanticipated consequences when planning for a new project or when a project reaches the end of its useful life,” the study notes.

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel@POWERmagazine).

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