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The circular economy is vital for the energy transition

3 ways

Reaching net zero requires a remake of the energy system. It will mean accomplishing what seems unimaginable, like entirely phasing out the internal combustion engine or adding the equivalent of the world’s largest solar farm every single day. It will also lead to a significant increase in demand for many important raw materials. The circular economy – a system which aims to get the most out of materials, keep products and materials in use and design them to be cycled back into the economy and eliminate waste – will be vital. Governments and companies should design the energy transition with principles of circular economy from the start, so we have a better chance to reach net zero.

In this blog we look at three ways the circular economy will play a vital role in the energy transition.

1. Recycling to conserve critical materials

The energy transition depends on a shift to renewable power, pivoting away from natural gas and petroleum, and towards solar, wind, hydrogen, geothermal power, or other zero emissions technology supported by batteries.

But transitioning to these technologies is triggering massive demand for the critical minerals required. Think lithium, cobalt, nickel and rare earths.

Getting to net zero by 2040 will require a six-fold increase in mineral input by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Some key metals, such as lithium, could see growth rates of over 40 times, with demand for nickel and cobalt growing more than 20-fold, and rare earths 8-fold. Demand is already soaring. The price of lithium in February 2022 hit an all-time high of $50,000 per tonne up from $10,000 just one year ago.

Obtaining these materials exclusively via mining presents sustainability challenges. For instance, the process of mining neodymium, a rare earth metal used in many electric motors and generators including those in wind turbines, is highly polluting. The metal also appears in relatively small concentrations and is hard to capture, making its extraction more intensive compared to other minerals.

These materials also present potential challenges to energy security in Europe. The EU currently supplies only 1% of the raw materials needed for key technologies such as wind energy, lithium batteries, silicon photovoltaic assemblies, and fuel cells.

The price rise in key commodities since Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine shows the inherent risk in the supply chains key for the energy transition. Palladium is important in the use and production of hydrogen and 40% of it is mined in Russia. Its price has risen by over 30% in March 2022 and the London Metal Exchange has stopped trading in Nickel after the price reached historic highs.

The circular economy can reduce the dependence on mining and ensure longer-term use of these critical materials if implemented at scale.

Recycling could help recover metals from the almost 60 million tonnes of smartphones, laptops, hard drives and many other electronic devices. Currently only 1% of neodymium is ever recycled and other metals in electronics that are key to the transition (tantalum, lithium, cobalt and manganese) also face poor rates of recycling.

Some companies are moving ahead on this. Many of the initiatives to recycle these materials are based around IT equipment. The systems being applied to smartphone recycling today may be effective for wind turbines, batteries, and other equipment tomorrow. Recycling alone won’t cover the full growth in material demand but raising recycling rates should be a first step in securing material supplies.

2. Using low-carbon, circular materials

To get to net zero, clean tech – such as electric cars or energy transition equipment – will need to be made from zero emissions materials, as well as produce zero emissions when used. By 2040, when most vehicles are predicted to be electric, the materials used to produce them could account for 60% of their total lifetime emissions as opposed to 18% in 2020, according to a World Economic Forum study. In fact, emissions generated by the production of all materials globally have more than doubled in the last 20 years. A recent UNEP study estimates this is from 5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 1995, to over 11 billion tonnes in 2015, reaching approximately a fifth of all emissions from greenhouse gases.

The circular economy can be a source of low carbon materials. For example, recycled aluminium or gold, copper and palladium from printed circuit boards emit up to 95% less carbon dioxide than that from virgin sources. Building energy transition infrastructure from secondary materials will help our transition to net zero.

3. Designing circular systems

Creating a truly sustainable energy transition means factoring the circular economy in at the design stage.

We need to install massive amounts of renewable energy over the coming decades. However, by the early 2030s, the first generation of solar will come offline, and by 2050 it’s predicted that we could be decommissioning 78 million tonnes of panels per year. In the same year, wind turbine blades could account for 43 million tonnes of waste, combined that is the weight of nearly 12,000 eiffel towers.

So now is the right time to think about how these products are designed for longer life, easy disassembly and recycling - and how we create and operate the systems to deal with the waste. With the right planning and attention, the panels coming offline in 2030 can become the new panels installed in 2031.

Companies have started to put this into action. For example, Siemens Gamesa recently announced the world’s first fully recyclable wind turbine blade. The resin used in blades allow for an easy separation of different materials at the end of the blade’s working life, allowing the component materials to be recycled. Chinese electric vehicle maker BYD also claims that its simpler battery chemistry and large cell size allows for easier recycling.

Another critical part of circular design is life extension. We should make durable products designed to be repurposed for other uses. For example, used car batteries which can no longer hold sufficient charge for the range needed in a motor vehicle still hold a residual capacity of 60-80% and can be effectively used in other applications that require lower performance, such as stationary energy storage to support the grid.

This is already happening. The stadium of Dutch football club Ajax used second hand Nissan leaf batteries to create a storage unit equivalent to the power used by 7,000 homes in one hour. This allows the club to store energy on sunny days that powers the stadium in evening games, as well as supporting the local grid.

Circular design can create valuable economic opportunities too. The Global Battery Alliance predicts that the market for second use batteries could grow to $4 billion by 2030, provided that standardisation and better, more flexible energy management systems can be introduced.

The time to act is now

The energy transition is finally gathering pace. And at its core is a move away from burning fossil fuels to a system which uses a much broader range of raw materials to fulfil our energy needs.

Circular economy has to be built into the design of the energy transition to ensure the world has a sustainable supply of raw materials. This will take concerted action from companies and regulators.

Companies which use critical materials in their products need to get ahead of the issue. They need a circular economy strategy, to prioritise key materials and set targets and measurable KPIs. They need to think about a product's end of life at the start of its life. And think about the role they can play in extending the product's life or building a reverse supply chain to bring the product back.

Companies which mine critical materials have an opportunity to move beyond being an extraction company towards being a provider of materials and material services. This could include experimenting with leasing models - where the company continues to own materials in products - or investing in recycling capabilities.

Governments must recognise critical materials as a key pillar of energy security over the coming decades. They should put in place national plans and assess and mitigate economic risks, and build giga recycling plants alongside giga battery factories. Smart regulations, which encourage product take back, recycling and reverse supply chains could have a major impact and can be tested today on our old electronics.

Investors can scope opportunities to invest in new recycling capacity as well as offering financial products to clients which enable new business models such as product as a service or leasing (where companies take back products and materials at end of life). Venture capital needs to seek out the most promising start-ups that are working on the tough technical problems in the recycling value chain.

As we enter a critical execution phase of limiting climate change, the time to act is now. Let’s design the circular economy into the energy transition so we can move faster and more sustainably in getting to net zero.

Read our Renewable energy industry outlook to understand five renewable energy industry trends to watch.

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