New policy grapples with incoming tide of renewable energy waste

China faces a tide of waste from decommissioned wind turbines to retired solar panels as old renewable energy facilities reach the end of their life. In a new policy on the recycling of industrial materials, issued jointly by ministries overseeing industry and economic affairs, the central government laid out plans to promote the development of technologies for the reuse of retired solar and wind facilities, and to improve recycling systems for EV batteries. According to China Energy News, this is the first time that wastes from the country’s rapidly growing renewable energy sector have been on the radar of top-level policymakers.

recent report estimates that by 2035, China may see 1.05 million tonnes of retired solar panel components, 1 million tonnes of wind turbines and 3 million tonnes of EV batteries enter into the end-of-life waste stream. “The new policy highlights the urgency of confronting this issue early on,” China Energy News commented.

There is currently a gap between the quantity of such waste on the horizon and the capacity available to handle it. China’s first pilot project for recycling polycrystalline silicon – a key material in solar cells – was put into operation in January this year. But its capacity to process the equivalent of 10 MW of waste solar panels is dwarfed by the 53,000 MW of new solar power China installed in 2021 alone. The same challenge exists in the processing of wind turbines.

Experts believe that cross-sector collaboration and coordination are required to achieve a high percentage of reuse of such materials. The silicon derived from reclamation processes is not readily suitable for making new solar panels, but is good for making silicon alloys. The new policy’s emphasis on building synergy among industries to promote “cross-sector utilisation” of such materials is considered a move in the right direction.