In Episode 42 of The Angry Clean Energy Guy, you will hear how the take-back and treatment of solar panels, inverters and batteries is already mandatory in the EU and is going global; how technologies to recycle solar panels are today everywhere around us and some reach an astonishing 96% recycling efficiency; how you can already recycle 85 to 90% of the total mass of wind turbines; and how 95% of lithium-ion battery components are being turned into new batteries or used in other industries. Most importantly perhaps, you can also see why the DNA of the clean energy industry is about building a circular economy around its products, in contrast to the DNA of Big Oil, which is about destroying, free of charge to them, our habitat.
Photo by Assaad W. Razzouk
There is an incredible amount of a new type of noise directed against the renewable energy industry and clean tech, in particular against solar, wind and batteries.
Years ago, solar and wind energy were criticized because “intermittency”. Because “birds”. Because “cost”.
For example, detractors of clean energy said “oh, the sun doesn’t shine all the time”, “oh, the wind doesn’t blow all the time”, therefore we have to have coal, we have to have gas, we have to have oil. Of course it turns out we don’t, because we can store renewable energy cost efficiently; and it costs a lot less to produce; and it’s so much cleaner.
Then it was birds. Apparently wind turbines were to be avoided at all costs because they killed enormous amount of birds. That was just propaganda of course, because the number one killer of birds, for example, wait for it, are cats – followed by collisions with buildings.
I haven’t heard anyone complaining about buildings, or cats.
Importantly, wind energy actually helps birds on a global scale by curbing climate change. Of course wind power facilities can harm birds through direct collisions, just like buildings. But wind energy is actually making an effort and it’s being sighted and operated today properly to avoid and minimize and mitigate impacts on birds.
So we’re done with that objection to renewable energy as well.
Then there was the cost objection which went something like “oh, we can’t do solar and wind because they’re so expensive”. It was propagated by not only oil, gas and coal and lobbying machines, but also by think tanks like the International Energy Agency, which are just a disguised version of the very same lobbying machine.
But guess what? It turns out that solar and wind are much, much cheaper than coal, gas and oil without even taking into account the environmental destruction from coal, gas and oil, which for some reason is never taken into account.
Today we’ve moved on to a more subtle objection, focused on waste and mining, which I’ve been hearing more and more out there and it goes something like this:
“Oh my God, what are we going to do with all those solar and wind turbines and batteries at the end of their lives”?
“Oh my God, what about the mining practices to get the cobalt or the lithium that we need for the clean energy revolution”?
Today, this has become the standard go-to objection to renewables, especially because the oil, gas and coal industries totally panicked because renewables, clean tech and clean energy have shown that not only are they here for real, but they’re staying and they are taking over a hundred percent of electricity everywhere.
On that note, I highly recommend reading a report by a new style think tank (you can think of a new style think tank the way you think about new style sashimi, it’s a think tank with a new sauce and a little chili) called RethinkX.
RethinkX analyzes, and then forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications on society. In a report issued about a week ago, they showed yet again (it’s yet again because I think there’s been over a hundred studies that showed this already) that 100% clean electricity from the combination of solar, wind and batteries is not only physically possible and economically affordable across the entire world by 2030, which is just 10 years away, but they’ve also shown why we are on the cusp of the fastest and deepest and most profound disruption of the energy sector in 200 years, which means that any dollar today that goes into coal, gas and nuclear makes no sense because all of them would become stranded this decade or next.
The replacement of that old technology is just the beginning. Read the report if you can, it will show you how we’re going to transform our energy system in fundamental ways that will produce a much larger amount of energy overall. Then, that super abundance of clean energy output, which is available at pretty much near zero marginal cost, will disrupt the energy industry in the same way as the information industry was disrupted by the digital revolution.
In other words, what happened in the world of bits is now poised to happen in the world of electrons. I don’t want to steal their thunder, go to rethink x.com and you can see it all there.
In this Episode 42 of The Angry Clean Energy Guy, I want to describe why the new arguments against renewables, namely, “oh, what are we going to do with these solar panels and wind turbines and batteries, and what about the mining related to them” are in one word, bullocks.
Welcome to Episode 42 of The Angry Clean Energy Guy with me, Assaad Razzouk
AUSTRALIA MEGA-SOLAR PROJECT
On 12,000 hectares (120 square kilometers or 30,000 acres) on a cattle station in Australia, a massive project is beginning to take shape, the most ambitious renewable energy project anywhere around the world when it was announced.
This project’s sponsors are planning to install 22 million solar panels in order to produce 10 gigawatts of solar energy. That’s about what you need to power the state of Connecticut, or Ireland.
It’s going to cost $20 billion or more. It’s linked into a high voltage direct current undersea cable from Australia through Indonesia to Singapore of 3,700 kilometers. It’s going to start exporting electricity and perhaps hydrogen in 2027. One of its headline goals is to supply 20% of Singapore’s electricity.
It’s also an easy target for dinosaurs attacking renewable energy. They just look at the 22 million solar panels and they go, what are we going to do with these 22 million solar panels at the end of their life?
Let me begin by saying two things.
First, the renewables and batteries industries can of course always do better in terms of building a circular economy around their products. But as you will hear, those industries aren’t doing too badly at all. And in all respects, they are doing so incredibly much better than what they’re replacing, which is a terribly dirty coal, gas and oil industry.
This brings me to my second point. There is a fundamental difference in the DNA of clean energy companies, of clean tech, of renewables, compared to Big Oil, Big Gas, Big Petrochemicals and Big Coal. The clean energy industry is working hard, as you will hear, to build a circular economy around its products. And it has its heart and its pocketbook in the right place. I’m going to take you quickly through what’s going on with the waste out of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and the mining related to them. By the end of this tour, I think you might come to the same conclusion: Big Oil has always destroyed and polluted at will, so has Big Gas, Big Petrochemicals and Big Coal. They don’t care. The clean tech, clean energy and renewables industries however have a fundamentally different DNA that cares. I see it all around me. The clean energy industry is well on its way to delivering a circular economy.
Let’s go to the solar panels to start and begin with a couple of facts: Solar panels live about 30 years; and in the European union, the taking back of solar panels and their treatment as well as that of inverters and batteries is mandatory by law.
In other words, EU legislation already requires solar panels to be recycled. This in turn leads to high collection, high reuse, and high recycling rates.
This will be inevitably, soon, the case worldwide. The vacuum when it comes to U.S. federal leadership on solar recycling and treatment of end-of-life PV modules is on its way to being filled, and meanwhile it’s being pushed by the states and the solar panel manufacturers themselves (the largest U.S. solar panel manufacturer has developed in-house recycling capabilities). Extended producer responsibility approach – making the manufacturers of future waste responsible for disposal on behalf of their customers – is also on its way. China started its own solar panel recycling and safety disposal research program and has already drafted various rules and regulations to manage the recycling loop, with more on the way each year. In Australia, the state of Victoria banned dumping all e-waste, including solar panels and another state, New South Wales, is implementing systems to recycle solar panels at the end of their lives.
The common belief that solar panels are not being recycled is a myth. On the contrary, they are well on their way to integrating the circular economy where every piece of a solar panel being upgraded, replaced or discarded, is used and re-used.
That’s pretty much the end of the conversation about the sustainability of solar energy, but I’m going to nonetheless add a couple of points.
Because solar cells manufacturers are bound by law, in the EU, to fulfil specific legal requirements and recycling standards, technologies to recycle solar panels are today everywhere around us. Some of them even reach an astonishing 96% recycling efficiency. When did you ever hear that an oil and gas pipeline or refinery talk about recycling?
I know you get my point.
What this means is that solar recycling is on its way to create even more green job opportunities and billions of dollars in recoverable value. In fact, it’s going to create so much recoverable value that we will be able to produce 2 billion new solar panels without the need to invest in any new raw materials whatsoever. So the solar industry is on its way to producing 630 gigawatts of energy just from reusing previously used materials. To put that number into perspective, the country of France today has about 40 gigawatts of installed solar. So, recycling is doing incredibly well, thank you very much, in the solar industry, and it’s only going to get better.
WIND TURBINES RECYCLING
Now you might ask, but what about wind turbines?
Well, there, the facts if one even bothered to try and look them up are incredibly simple. Right now, right now, today, 85 to 90%, 85 to 90% of the total mass of wind turbines can be recycled, including the steel, the copper wire, the electronics and the gearing. But, there is a problem. The blades represent a specific challenge because they are manufactured with complex composite materials in order to withstand hurricanes, for example, and in order to be more durable and lighter at the same time. So the fiberglass blades are difficult to dispose of. We need to be clear about that. Imagine those blades, some of them are as long as a football field. They’re difficult to move around and therefore at the end, because of both the material and the size, they are difficult to deal with.
But, once again, the DNA of the industry is a good DNA and the industry is building a circular economy approach into what it’s doing.
Back to the good news: Number one, the world’s first 100% recyclable wind turbine blades are soon to hit the market. There’s a consortium of French companies, for example, working on it. In addition, a Danish start-up has already found a way to crush these blades, turning what basically is an ultra resistant mix of fiberglass and of glue, into barriers designed to block noise from highways and factories. You know the barriers I’m referring to if you drive down a highway where people live nearby. In addition, a U.S. startup developed a method to break down the blades and press them into pallets and fiberboards, which are then used for flooring and for walls and they process 99% of those turbines.
Add to that the fact that in the European union, which strictly regulates what can go into a landfill, some blades are already burned in kilns that creates cement or in power plants. Now, that’s not a very ideal solution because their energy content is weak and uneven. But, as you can hear, people are trying to find solutions and are finding solution so much so that in Germany, for example, the German Institute for Standardization has already published, very recently, an industry standard developed by experts from the wind energy industry, from the recycling industry, as well as scientists and the German government, to create what is the first standard, anywhere in the world, for dismantling and recycling the wind turbines.
And finally, let’s put the problem into perspective. You’ve already heard that 85 to 90% of the total mass of wind turbines can be recycled and that the residual problem that we’re dealing with today is the blades. To put the blades problem into perspective, these are landfill safe, unlike the waste from oil, gas and coal, for example. In addition, all the blade waste from the entire world through 2050, including everything we’re going to install, is 0.01%. of all the municipal solid waste we are already sending to landfills today.
So as you can hear, we have a problem, but it’s a tiny, small problem and we are solving it.
Remember, these are new problems, which are already being solved, whereas what the renewables are replacing, coal, oil and gas, these are leaving us with a waste tsunami of plastic, of pipelines, of offshore and onshore rigs, many of them leaking methane and abandoned, all of which pollute our air, and water and lungs and oceans and food chain, and none of which they’re paying for.
Because of climate change, we’re all focused on the burning of fossil fuels, but what about their other environmental impacts? Oil and gas companies right now are going bankrupt at a pace not seen in years because of a global price war followed by a pandemic, but there is an environmental disaster lurking behind these bankruptcies because these bankrupt oil and gas companies are leaving unprofitable wells behind, and they are leaving them abandoned, even as they continue leaking methods, which is one of the worst things you could be leaking when you have a climate change problem. They’re also leaving a costly bill for taxpayers to clean it all up.
Let me just give you a number to put this problem into perspective. The U.S. federal government estimates that just in the U.S., there are already more than 3 million abandoned oil and gas wells across the country. Out of these 3 million, 2 million are unplugged releasing methane every day.
ELECTRIC CARS AND THEIR BATTERIES
At that point you might ask, but what about the batteries of electric cars, as in “Oh my God, there is going to be a mountain of future waste that these batteries will generate and what about the mining practices associated with producing everything that we need to manufacture these batteries”?
If you ask that question, once again, I will give you pretty much exactly the same story. 95% of lithium-ion battery components can be turned, right now, into new batteries or used in other industries. And here too, expect good news to come in consistently over the next few years.
It’s a young industry. Its waste problem is in the future. And the industry is already developing and implementing solutions. The industry’s DNA remember has a circular economy built into it, and the facts speak for themselves.
In the case of batteries, I’ll give you just one example. A co-founder of Tesla, JB Straubel, set up a company called Redwood materials. Redwood materials is trying to become the world’s top battery recycling company. Why? Because it’s abundantly clear that there’ll be a point where if you were able to recycle all the batteries out there, you actually won’t need to mine much anymore.
Right now, Redwood materials recycles enough batteries to power 10,000 electric cars. That’s not much, however they are funded to scale up and they will. In any case, their goal is far more ambitious because JB is creating a circular supply chain to recycle the scrap from battery cell production, as well as from consumer electronics, like phones and laptops and power tools and power banks and scooters and electric bicycles, all of which require these batteries. He is therefore collecting the scrap from consumer electronics as well as battery cell manufacturers. Then he is processing these to extract cobalt, nickel and lithium, all of which are typically mined, and then supply these back to customers. That would fundamentally change the supply chain of battery manufacturers, for example, because they will gradually move away from minerals that had been mined towards those that had been recycled. And that’s the clean energy industry again taking the lead on creating a circular economy. You can certainly not say that about those who manufacture phones, for example, because very little effort whatsoever is placed by phone manufacturers into recycling phone batteries. So we’re going to do it for them.
And now a quick word about mining.
There’s a mineral called cobalt which is used in making batteries for electric cars and 50% of world production of that mineral comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has all sorts of problems, including armed conflict, illegal mining, human rights abuses, child labor and environmental issues. The argument goes that it’s unethical to therefore drive electric because of the cobalt used in the batteries.
Let’s put aside for a second the fact that actually the battery industry will be making batteries without cobalt soon.
Let’s also put aside for a minute, the fact that the DNA of the industry is to improve mining practices compared to everything else that we mine.
Finally, let’s put aside for a moment the fact that this is coming from people that really have no more arguments against the clean energy industry.
When you hear that argument, the only thing you need to do is to react by putting it into context and into perspective with a minimal sense of relativity. For example, you can point out the fact that we can mine responsibly; or that the industry related to green products like electric cars is in fact increasingly policing itself and trying to do that. Or even better. Why don’t we talk about the fact that terrible mining practices apply to everything that we mine in the world, and finally here comes in industry that cares!
In addition, what about talking instead, for example, about the alternative, which is dirty cars that are helping dirty air worldwide, and that in turn are cutting lives short by 11 years in India so far and 7 years in China and 2 years everywhere else. And that’s only so far and it will only get worse if we don’t stop with petrol guzzling cars.
Let’s try and bring all this together.
First, the solar industry: The taking back and the treatment of solar panels, inverters and batteries is mandatory by law in the European union. And it’s going global. And in any case technologies to recycle solar panels are today everywhere around us, and some reach 96% recycling efficiency.
On wind turbines, what one needs to know is that you can already recycle 85 to 90% of the total mass of wind turbines, that there is a problem with the blades, but that it’s being resolved.
On batteries, remember that 95% of lithium-ion battery components can be turned into new batteries or used in other industries.
Having settled that, I would, however, add one final point. There is clearly no question that if you tap into natural resources, you will damage the planet, even if you had a fully circular economy around you. However, the solar industry, the wind industry, the electric car industry, the battery industry, they understand that unlike their predecessors, the dirty industries that they are replacing.
That’s why at the same time, a green economy is pushing all of us to think bigger and never stop. For example, we do need more pedestrianized city centers. I mean, that’s obvious. We need sustainable public transport. That’s also obvious. Bicycles should they take over our densely populated cities. And let’s not forget that the oceans and the rivers and lands where resources are mined must be legally protected in a way which is very rare today. Finally, all of that has to be done while paying attention to human rights and making sure no child labor is taking place.
What one should draw the most comfort from is the fact that the DNA of the clean energy industry in its entirety is completely about the circular economy and is completely better than that of the dirty industry it replaces.
On that note, thank you so much for listening to this Episode 42 of The Angry Clean Energy Guy with me, Assaad Razzouk. If you like my podcasts, please leave a review anywhere you listen to your podcasts and have a great couple of weeks.
There is so much to be angry about, if you are a clean energy guy.
Every day, so many things that happen around the world make me angry when I look at them with lenses colored by the climate change chaos unfolding everywhere around us. And I am especially angry because I know we can solve the climate change crisis if we were only trying.
Each week, I will share with you a few topics that struck me and that I was very angry about – and this will generally have to do with climate change, solar or wind power, plastic pollution, environmental degradation, wildlife, the oceans and other related topics.