There's Value in Old Power Generation Components

Equipment from both renewable and thermal energy power plants is finding new life in the recycling market.

The market for recycled power equipment components is getting a boost due to ongoing global supply chain issues, particularly for those in the renewable energy sector. The so-called “circular” supply chain, in which materials are recycled and reused in the same product, provides a solution for companies finding it difficult to source raw materials.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said waste “from end-of-life solar panels presents opportunities to recover valuable materials and create jobs through recycling,” and forecasts that by 2030, “the cumulative value of recoverable raw materials from end-of-life panels globally will be about $450 million, which is equivalent to the cost of raw materials currently needed to produce about 60 million new panels. Diverting solar panels from landfills to recycling saves space in landfills in addition to capturing the value of the raw materials.”

1. This bike shelter in Denmark is made from part of a recycled wind turbine blade. The Danish government has said 90% of the country’s residents own a bicycle, with cycling engrained in the Danish culture. Courtesy: Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy

Several materials can be recycled from solar power technology, including aluminum, copper, glass, and plastics. It’s much the same for wind power; according to ENGIE, the French multinational utility, the components in wind turbines “are essentially 100% recyclable. Their different parts are dismantled, sorted and then sent through specialized recovery channels. The concrete used for their foundations is reused on other sites [Figure 1], steel and aluminum are sent to foundries or steelworks, and fiberglass from turbine blades is reused for other products, such as fire hydrants.”

Components from thermal power plants can be recycled as well. Globe Metal, a Canadian company, is among those recycling materials from gas turbines, including various metals. The group notes that “nickel-based alloys, cobalt-based alloys, iron-based alloys, various superalloys [tungsten, molybdenum, niobium, tantalum, etc.], titanium, aluminum, Inconels, stainless steel alloys,” and more can be recycled from end-of-life gas turbines.

“The electricity-generating components of power plants, such as the turbines and generators, may be transferred to other power plants or sold as scrap metal,” Dan Scholz, principal in the Energy & Utilities practice at Arthur D. Little, an international management consulting firm, told POWER. He noted, though, that “these components are not generally recycled on a large scale.”

2. Construction materials, such as these large bricks, can be made from fly ash, a residual of the coal-burning process. Courtesy: Creative Commons / Praveenvatsa

Something that is widely recycled from thermal power generation is fly ash, a byproduct from burning coal. Known as coal combustion residuals, or CCR, within the industry, ash has been reused for years in construction, as an ingredient in drywall (wallboard), concrete, roofing materials, cinder blocks (Figure 2), and more.

Frank Bodami, owner of New York-based demolition contractor Total Wrecking & Environmental, told POWER his company “endeavors to recycle or reuse to the maximum extent possible at each of our project sites. Depending on the project, recycled materials may include metals of every type, brick, block, concrete, stone, asphalt, wood, glass, paper, plastics, electronics, oils or any other material for which there are a secondary or recycling market.”

Bodami said, “Metals are sorted by type, prepared and sized for recycle according to the requirements of the customer, and shipped via rail or truck directly to steel mills and other producers of non-ferrous metals and ingots. Uncontaminated brick, block, concrete, stone and glass may be crushed and reused as fill at the project site, or sold to market as aggregate materials for a variety of uses. Asphalt is typically broken or milled and reused in new asphalt at local batch plants. We utilize our vast network of recycling centers and partners for each type of recyclable material.”

Recycling Nuclear Fuel, Other Materials

The U.S. continues to research the use of spent nuclear fuel to power advanced reactors, but the use of recycled nuclear fuel has been prohibited in the U.S. since 1977. Other countries, though, do reuse nuclear fuel, as the previously used fuel generally retains about 95% of its original uranium. France has used recycled nuclear fuel in its reactors for decades.

“Though not yet profitable, the spent fuel recycling yields promise,” said Scholz. “The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s new spent fuel recycling techniques rely on spinning a chemical slurry of spent uranium through a power-intense centrifuge. Different chemicals are mixed in, centrifuged, or subtracted into the mixture throughout the process. In addition, techniques for powering reactors with spent fuel are being researched by companies including TerraPower, which is funded by [Microsoft founder] Bill Gates.”

As energy storage becomes more commonplace, the recycling of batteries and their materials also is a topic of discussion, particularly around the challenges of dealing with materials often classified as hazardous waste.

“One of the biggest challenges for getting involved in the recycling of power generation equipment is that the manufacturers [continually] innovate the design and composition of their power generation equipment to reduce cost, expand capacity, and improve reliability,” said Peter Wright, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg, a Washington, D.C.–based law firm. “It is challenging for recyclers to adjust to make the investments, and build and install the equipment needed to keep pace with these changes.” He said that along with innovation in power generation and energy storage technology, “There also needs to be innovation and improvement in the ability to recycle” the “valuable materials” in that technology.

Bodami said his company could achieve “95% to 99% recycle and reuse” of building materials from an uncontaminated site. He said many materials can be resold versus recycled, including “working industrial equipment, tanks, valves, pumps, motors, generators, transformers and the like,” which he said “are marketable to companies across a wide range of industries. Specialty markets exist for equipment and parts that may not otherwise be available through traditional means. Wooden beams and other structural members have resale markets, as do the older handmade bricks. Many oils have reuse options as well. Our asset recovery teams perform a thorough walkthrough to identify and catalog items with resale value that exceeds scrap or recycling value. We market those items direct to end users as well as industrial parts and equipment resale companies. When the opportunity exists, we also make donations of items like office furniture, air conditioners, appliances, and other household type items to charitable causes and organizations.”

Recycling in Renewable Energy

Much of the discussion about recycling of energy industry components revolves around renewable energy—what to do with solar panels and wind turbine blades as they wear out.

“The lifespan of renewable energy materials is typically 20 to 30 years,” said Lisa Rushton, co-head of Womble Bond Dickinson’s Energy and Natural Resources Sector and head of the Renewable Energy Subsector. “However, the fast pace of technological development means that equipment can be subject to relatively rapid obsolescence and can generate complex waste streams. Waste arising from end-of-life clean energy infrastructure is projected to grow up to 30-fold over the next 10 years. This presents significant opportunities to reduce consumption of scarce raw materials often utilized in battery technology by recycling metals and other valuable resources back into production systems.”

Ken Irvin, co-leader of Sidley’s global energy practice area team, told POWER, “How to repurpose, reuse, and recycle components from wind and solar generation and batteries is a critical issue that needs attention sooner rather than later.” Irvin said, “We see a viable market for recycling steel and other materials that will hopefully grow into a vibrant, growing market. Indeed, with the supply chain complications and global strife we’re seeing today, reusing the metals and other components is a very important means to help mitigate exposure to supply disruptions and political risk.”

Scholz told POWER, “One of the biggest challenges for companies recycling power generation equipment is making such recycling cost-effective. But we’re beginning to see technology which might solve the problem. Several companies, such as Global Fiberglass Solutions in Texas and Rosi Solar in France, are working on solutions to improve power generation equipment recycling technology. Global Fiberglass Solutions recycles wind turbine blades to produce pellets used in construction. Rosi Solar separates valuable materials, including silver and silicon, from solar panels using a thermal process called pyrolysis.”

Leader in Solar Recycling

We Recycle Solar, based in Phoenix, Arizona, is a leader in the recycling market, partnering with utilities, manufacturers, operations and maintenance providers, and contractors working in the solar power sector. The company serves both U.S. and international customers.

We Recycle Solar is the nationwide disposal provider for solar,” said AJ Orben, the company’s vice president. “We process all solar-related equipment, batteries, inverters, racking systems. The primary challenge behind it is the economics. It’s never been a question of whether solar panels could be recycled, it’s whether they could be recycled cost-effectively. Does the cost of turning it into something else, outweigh the cost of the recycling process?”

Orben said it’s important for equipment to be “responsibly recycled,” with “metals separated from the glass and the semiconductor materials. The metals—aluminum, copper, lead, silver, and tin—those go to metals mills and refineries, [and are] brought back to their base form. Aluminum could go to the solar industry, or be used for soda cans or baseball bats, or siding for your home.” He said glass would go to companies specializing in glass processing; some could be used in fiberglass or concrete aggregation.

Orben said part of the financial challenge for recyclers stems from moves to make solar panels lighter and thinner. “If you were to compare a solar panel from the late ‘90s to early 2000s to today, [the older panel is] probably going to be a lot richer in silver and copper. Today, panels are lighter and thinner, with less metals inside of them. Manufacturing, less raw materials, cheaper to produce, ultimately it means you can sell that product for a lesser price. From a disposal perspective, you’re removing any of the material of relative value. You’re making it more financially challenging for a recycler to break down.”

The Fraunhofer Center for Silicon Photovoltaics CSP in Freiburg, Germany, earlier this year said its researchers were part of a team that produced solar cells from 100% recycled silicon. Solar cells are the small squares usually arranged in a tile pattern on solar panels; they capture the sun’s energy, and silicon is their essential material. Peter Dold, the project manager at Fraunhofer, said the process works for recycling crystalline silicon solar parts regardless of the manufacturer, which is important because the process for recycling solar components may vary depending on the maker. “It was important for us to develop a scalable process that makes economic sense,” Dold said in announcing his group’s breakthrough.

Dold in February said the recycled cells have an efficiency of 19.7% when it comes to converting the sun’s energy into electricity. That’s below the efficiency of newly produced solar cells—a study published in late March rated SunPower’s Maxeon 6 cell at 22.8%, with six producers at 22% or higher—but Dold said the Fraunhofer cells’ efficiency is higher than that of older solar cells that have been recycled.

Wind Turbine Blades, and EV Batteries

Three Spain-based companies—Endesa, PreZero España, and Reciclalia Composite—earlier this year reached an agreement to start up the Iberian Peninsula’s first wind blade recycling plant, with the support of GE Renewable Energy and its subsidiary LM Wind Power. The groups have said they will invest €8.5 million ($9.42 million) in the project and begin construction next year.

The plant will be designed to recycle more than 6,000 tons of fiberglass and carbon fiber from wind turbines annually, supporting the reuse and incorporation of the recycled products back into the wind power industry, and into other sectors using those materials. The plant is expected to be operational by 2024.

Redwood Materials, a Nevada-based startup, has joined with automakers Ford and Volvo as partners in a pilot to salvage and reuse the valuable minerals within old electric vehicle (EV) batteries. Redwood will collect lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride batteries from EVs and hybrid vehicles, and process them. Redwood and Ford already have said they want to develop a closed-loop battery supply chain, beginning by salvaging scrap materials from battery factories that Ford has planned with South Korea’s SK Innovation.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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