China acts on solar and wind waste recycling

China Sets Up Recycling System for Aging Wind Turbines and Solar Panels to Tackle Growing Waste in Renewable Industry

Wind and solar resources are unlimited given by nature, but equipment components generating energy from the resources have a finite lifespan. As older projects are replaced and decommissioned, waste volumes are set to soar, with large amounts of capacity already approaching retirement age, posing big environmental risks.

China, as the world’s leading renewable equipment manufacturer is tackling the mounting issue of clean energy waste head-on. As the nation strives to decarbonize its economy and reduce coal dependency, the rapid proliferation of wind turbines and solar panels has brought about a new environmental concern – one that underscores the pressing need for dedicated solar and wind equipment recycling plants.

As older wind and solar projects reach the end of their operational lives, a new challenge has emerged: the management of massive volumes of discarded equipment.  The problem is a clear reminder that environmental responsibility extends beyond energy generation; it encompasses the entire lifecycle of the technology.

Recognizing the impending environmental risks, China is leading the charge in finding a solution. The establishment of a recycling system for aging wind turbines and solar panels highlights a pivotal shift in perspective. 

China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has released guidelines to boost recycling of aging wind and solar equipment. The new technical standards and polices for the wind and solar industries were released with the aim of creating dedicated industry clusters across China by 2030. 

This system will include new industrial standards and rules detailing the proper ways to decommission, dismantle, and recycle these facilities. The goal is to have a “basically mature” full-process recycling system in place by the end of the decade.

The NDRC guidelines stipulate that manufacturers should design equipment that is easy to disassemble and recycle, while also making renewable energy manufacturers responsible for decommissioning equipment in an environmentally sustainable manner. 

The guidelines guides centralized wind and solar power generation enterprises to dispose of retired equipment according to law. It bans illegal disposal including arbitrary landfilling and discarding, and prohibits abandoning industrial solid waste into domestic waste collection facilities.

China’s official Science and Technology Daily newspaper has reported experts’ estimations that the nation will need to recycle 1.5 million metric tons of PV modules by 2030, with the numbers skyrocketing to around 20 million tons by 2050.  A photovoltaic panel lasts 25 to 30 years, while the lifespan of a wind turbine is usually about 20 years.

The People’s Daily reports that China already has businesses, such as PVRC, the first private company specializing in dismantling and recycling waste photovoltaic modules based in Changzhou, east China’s Jiangsu province.

Decommission doesn’t necessarily mean that the equipment should be abandoned. In fact, these wind and solar equipment still have high recycling value. Decommissioned wind turbines with an average capacity of one megawatt can reclaim 100 to 240 tons of steel, copper, aluminum and fiberglass, while retired photovoltaic equipment of the same capacity can reclaim 60 to 80 tons of copper, aluminum, plastic and other materials. Establishing a recycling system for decommissioned wind and solar equipment can effectively improve the efficiency of raw material utilization and reduce the extraction of virgin resources.

Meanwhile, in January 2024, China issued its first set of proposed standards for recycling retired onshore wind turbines, laying the foundation for tackling supply chain sustainability challenges arising from renewable energy generation. The proposed standards prioritise reuse and recycling of wind blades while banning landfilling and burning.

South China Morning Post, 19 Jan, 2024

The proposed standards prioritise reuse and recycling of wind blades, while banning landfilling and burning, according to a circular published by the National Energy Administration on Tuesday. The standards will be open for public consultation until the end of next month.

The issue of waste from renewable energy sources isn’t confined to China alone. It’s a burgeoning global concern that demands collaborative efforts. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has projected a scenario in which total waste from solar projects could reach 212 million tons annually by 2050.