The energy transition should allow the reduction of greenhouse gases, but it will also lead to the appearance of new types of waste. In a study published on Tuesday, RECYC-QUÉBEC wants to stimulate reflection on how to best manage the hundreds of thousands of tons of new materials that will ultimately have to be recovered and reused.
Quebec must now think about circular economy strategies to be used to manage the abundance of waste, or end-of-life materials, caused by the energy transition, according to RECYC-QUÉBEC.
The study “Materials of the energy transition: State of the situation and possible solutions” stresses that the amount of materials to be managed would go from just over 4,000 tons in 2021 to 296,000 tons in 2050, that is, approximately 70 times more. By 2030, approximately 142,000 tons of materials will come from the wind energy, solar energy, green hydrogen and electric mobility sectors.
“If we approach the energy, ecological transition with the mentality of the linear economy, that is to say that we sell, use and throw away, then we are moving away from our objective”, stressed the president and CEO of RECYC-QUÉBEC in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“The resource we use needs to become waste as late as possible and when it is, we need to figure out how we dispose of it, so we need to think about it now and by thinking about it ahead of time, we have time to develop solutions that are acceptable, local, in a cycle short”, added Sonia Gagné.
The “short loop” is a circular economy strategy that aims to encourage local markets to reuse, repair, renew or even recycle a product so that its life cycle is as long as possible.
On the contrary, the management of long-cycle materials will favor the export abroad of end-of-life products, as is the case with large amounts of waste, such as certain plastics that are loaded on ships to Asian countries, sometimes without knowing if they will be burned, recycled or buried.
According to the RECYC-QUÉBEC study, the two sectors where there will be the most materials to manage in 2050 are wind power (approximately 49% of the 296,000 tons) and electric mobility (approximately 47%).
Recycling of wind turbines: a great challenge
If we take into account that the average life of a wind turbine is between 20 and 25 years, a significant number of those installed in the first wind farms in Quebec in the early 2000s will reach the end of their useful life in the coming years.
RECYC-QUÉBEC highlights that the main obstacles and challenges for recycling wind turbines are related to the blades, because they are made of composite materials that are more difficult to recycle.
Currently in Quebec, the blades of wind turbines are sent to the nearest technical landfill (LET), so they are not reused or recycled.
Using end-of-life blades as fuel in cement plants, as is the case in some European countries, is also not an environmentally friendly solution due to COtwo emitted by its combustion.
Extending the useful life of wind turbine blades is a great challenge, since their imposing size forces them to be cut before transporting them or resorting to special transport, which “significantly increases the costs associated with their logistics, thus limiting the possibilities of reaching to sites with capacity”. to recycle them”, underlines the RECYC-QUÉBEC study.
“When the blades reach the end of their useful life, large quantities are generated in a short time, potentially clogging the processing channels,” the study can read.
In the Netherlands and Denmark, some end-of-life wind turbine blades are part of street furniture, used as bicycle shelters, transformed into public benches or even playgrounds.
But the integration of wind turbine blades in urban furniture is a solution that has limits, due to the very high number of wind turbines that will have to be managed.
The RECYC-QUÉBEC study points out that the recovery of wind turbine blades is the subject of a research project by Synergie Matanie, in partnership with Groupe Bouffard and the University of Sherbrooke, which aims to “integrate blade waste, manufactured with 75% fiberglass, in a concrete mix”.
“It is a small-scale project that serves to evaluate possible solutions,” said RECYC-QUÉBEC President and CEO Sonia Gagné.
But for the president of RECYC-QUÉBEC, a large part of the solution to the management of materials in the energy transition is based on ecodesign.
Sonia Gagné suggests that this principle, which consists of integrating environmental protection from the design of a product, be taken into account in competitions.
Among the obstacles to the proper management of transition materials, the RECYC-QUÉBEC report also mentions that in Quebec “there are no incentives for manufacturers or a recyclability obligation that encourages manufacturers to eco-design wind turbine components.”
However, it is possible to make wind turbine blades with recyclable materials; the RECYC-QUÉBEC study reports, for example, that Siemens Gamesa launched the first fully recyclable blade in a factory in Denmark in 2021 and that Vestas’ Dreamwind project in Sweden aims to develop recyclable composite materials for blades.
According to the European Commission, 80% of the environmental and social impacts and 70% of the costs of products and services can be determined during design.
Batteries and terminals: 20 times more materials
In 2050, the terminals and batteries of the electric transport sector will have to generate 20 times more materials than today, approximately the equivalent of the wind sector according to RECYC-QUÉBEC.
Among the 296,000 tons of materials produced by the energy transition and that must be recycled by 2050, RECYC-QUÉBEC has identified concrete, aluminum, ferrous metals, as well as various critical and strategic minerals.
The circular economy and the implementation of ecodesign strategies, with a view to reducing them at source, represent the key to ensuring the sustainable management of energy transition materials, according to the study.
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