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“Giant wave” of US solar repowering, recycling on the way

16 September 2021 Keiron Greenhalgh

A "giant wave" of US solar facilities is set to reach the end of its working life in as little as five years' time, leading to a corresponding wave of repowering or recycling, BayWa r.e. Solar Systems Product Manager Kate Collardson said 15 September.

Speaking during a Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE) event on "geriatric" solar and wind facilities, Collardson said the coming waves mirror the solar sector's growth rate in the US. Repowering is already taking place in the wind sector, but only a fraction of what's to come is underway, Collardson and her fellow panelists said.

US solar capacity installations between 2021 and 2025 are set to total 149 GW, according to IHS Markit data.

The US currently has 108.7 GW of installed solar capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a US trade association.

Most solar decommissioning so far in the US has been for reasons other than a facility reaching its end of life, Elizabeth Mayo, vice president operations, Brookfield Renewable, told webinar attendees, but in five years' time the end of life "wave" is going to rear up.

Solar repowering is intermittent at the moment in the US, but in two years' time that's going to be very different, warned Mayo.

At the moment

Repowering in the solar sector currently involves removing old equipment and replacing the modules with newer versions, Collardson said.

Output degrades over time, and sometimes there's damage, she said. In effect, repowering was equipment repair on a slightly larger scale, she added.

However, facility owners and operators can have trouble obtaining replacement parts for long-term assets, as the parts may no longer be manufactured, said Mayo. Alternatively, the voltage may not match, she added.

One of the challenges for solar repowering involves the potential for a change in regulatory and safety codes within a jurisdiction, which leads to the question of whether new mounts or new racking are required, Collardson said.

There's also a limit on what can be resold in the solar market, said Collardson, although there are opportunities, especially with lower power modules. The top five nations globally for PV waste in 2020 were China, the US, India, Japan, and Germany, she said.

The incentive for repowering a solar project in the US is that the terms for power purchase agreements are now much more favorable, said Mayo. For Collardson it means more repowering is on the way.

Meantime, supply chain constraints led to price increases across every US solar market segment in the second quarter of 2021, the SEIA said in a report released 14 September, adding that it was the first time solar had increased quarter over quarter and year over year in every market segment since 2014. Prices increased the most for the utility-scale segment at about 6% year over year, it added.

US solar module shipments in July fell to 2,235,951 from 2,721,935 a month earlier, but have risen consistently since the start of 2020, US Energy Information Administration (EIA) data released 15 September show. US monthly shipments averaged 1,701,025 modules in 2020, according to the EIA data, with March 2020 the first month on record shipments topped 2 million.

Expensive hurdle

Speaking of cost, the biggest hurdle currently to solar recycling is that it is "just expensive," said Mayo, adding that the volume thus far hasn't been high enough for the cost to be anything else. But the volume of panels set to reach the end of their working life in the coming years is set to drive down costs, she said.

Currently, solar panels are "not made to come apart easily, and that's a problem," Collardson told WRISE event participants. "They're not made to lend themselves to a circular economy."

"There are a lot of challenges," but there a "lot of drivers pushing in the right direction," said Mayo.

The industry model established by paint or tires is one that could be followed by the solar sector, said Mayo, noting that such industries imposed extra costs to make recycling work. The solar industry "doesn't jump up and down at extra costs, [but] it just might need to," she added.

At the moment, sending worn-out assets to a landfill is the only cost-effective solution, the Brookfield Renewable executive said.

A crisis is coming on solar recycling in the US, said Collardson, and "we have to sit down and figure out what we're going to do about it. It's going to take a lot of work to get there." There's a need for more federal and state rules and guidance in the sector, added Clearway Energy's Ninochska Maldonado-Bosworth.

Allies

To attain a circular economy in the renewable energy sector, be that solar or wind or other arenas, said Mayo, will require a commitment to admitting there is a problem. "We're going to have to pay sometime," whether that be taxes, incentives, government intervention, or collaboration, she said.

"It starts with owners asking [wind turbine original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for instance]: 'OK, you've got the biggest blades out there, but what are you going to do with it' in 10-15 years'" time, Maldonado, NERC and O&M Strategy manager at San Francisco-based solar, wind and natural gas-fired generation developer Clearway, told the WRISE event attendees.

Some owners and OEMs have already taken baby steps towards that in recent days.

The Global Alliance for Sustainable Energy was launched 16 September to aid the move to a circular economy, it said.

The 17 founding members are: 3M, Adani Green Energy, EDP, Eletrobras, Enel Green Power, Global Solar Council, Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), Goldwind, Iberdrola, JA Solar, Nordex Group, NTPC, Politecnico di Milano, Politecnico di Torino, ReNew Power, Risen Energy, and Trina Solar.

"The wind industry has a crucial role to play in cleaning up the dirty parts of the global economy such as steel, cement, and heavy transport but also to decarbonize our own supply chain at the same time," said Ben Backwell, GWEC CEO.

"Work on the wind industry's own sustainability is already under way as we move from pilot projects to a full-scale industry approach, addressing challenges such as circular economy solutions to blade recycling and protecting labor practices and human rights in a rapidly expanding workforce," he added.

During the 14 September webinar, Maldonado said there's a huge realization dawning in the industry that wind turbines were designed to last for 20-25 years. However, there are some US owners or operators with "really good PPAs" that are now more than 15 years old, so they are trying to extend the lifespan of their assets for 10 years more "at all costs," she said.

The question, said Mayo, is "can I?" The answer, she said, is always found by running the numbers. The answer could be derating the turbines for three years, added Maldonado. Derating involves operating a turbine at a lower level than it has the potential to run at.

When turbines were built, the lifespan was seen to be 20-25 years, said Mayo, but now it is 35 years, industry players are talking about upping that to 40 years.

The wind turbine refurbishment market has improved greatly, aiding these hopes, said Maldonado, noting that this applied especially to gearboxes.

But it depends if the wind turbine manufacturer still exists, Mayo said. The OEM landscape has changed so much since many of the turbines were built, due to the many mergers and acquisitions during the period, that there is a strong chance that might not be the case, she said.

Recyclable blades

One of the world's largest wind turbine manufacturers currently, itself a product of those mergers and acquisitions, is attempting to offer a greener option for what has until now been the hardest part of a turbine to recycle or reuse—the blade.

Siemens Gamesa—the fifth ranked turbine supplier globally in 2020, according to GWEC, even after a drop of three places compared with 2019—on 7 September launched what it said was the world's first recyclable wind turbine blade.

Siemens Gamesa wants to make turbines fully recyclable by 2040, it said.

The first six RecyclableBlades were produced at a Siemens Gamesa plant in Aalborg, Denmark. Siemens Gamesa has deals in place with customers RWE, EDF Renewables, and wpd to install the blades on turbines for at least one facility each of the companies own, it said.

The chemical structure of a new resin type makes it possible to efficiently separate the resin from the other components at end of the new model of blade's working life, the OEM said. The materials can then be reused after separation, it added.

Posted 16 September 2021 by Keiron Greenhalgh, Editor, Climate & Sustainability Group, IHS Markit

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