How the Circular Economy can Support the Push for Sustainable Energy
With the growing demand for renewable energy sources like solar power, it's easy to forget that the immediate source of energy is not the only area where the environment can suffer. We are increasingly facing supply chain issues and environmental concerns over the resources needed to make sustainable energy sources in the first place.
Much of this issue revolves around rare earth materials which, as the name suggests, are hard to come by, and get harder with every load that is pulled from the earth. Furthermore, there is much concern over the mining practices used to get these materials, specifically with regards to the damage it does to the surrounding environment.
A Circular Economy
Many of these issues can be mitigated—if not all but eradicated—by the effective implementation of a circular economy. A circular economy tackles many of the problems associated with sustainable energy. Maximising the use of existing materials reduces the number of materials needed to be taken from our natural environment. And, in doing so, it also reduces the amount of waste we have to deal with from redundant systems because that waste is recycled as much as possible.
The problem with this kind of recycling is that, like the adoption of renewable energy sources themselves, it takes investment from the companies that make things like wind turbines and solar panels. These companies need to be willing to invest in the technologies needed to reclaim materials from obsolete technology, and, right now, the market and regulatory conditions are not incentivising them to do that.
How a Circular Economy Helps
So why should we be incentivising businesses to adopt the kind of "takeback" schemes needed to fuel a circular economy? After all, "incentivisation" in this context typically means more money coming out of the public purse, so it's understandable to want to know that it's going to be worth it.
Reduce The Cost of Sustainable Technology
At the moment, it is still more financially viable to continue extracting fresh materials from the ground than it is to reclaim obsolete hardware for the materials that have already been mined. That being said, these resources are not infinite, and the more we extract, the harder it is to find and extract more.
There will come a time where the increasing difficulty (and costs) of mining new resources will make it cheaper to reclaim materials than to seek fresh ones. That, in turn, will result in lower prices for things like solar panels and wind turbines made using reclaimed materials.
Reduce the Impact on the Environment
The spectre of environmental disaster has never been more visceral than it is today, and that is turning public sentiment. Increasingly, consumers are demanding transparency, ethical practices, and sustainability from the supply chains of businesses they use, and that sentiment is only set to increase as time goes on and the impact of man-made climate change becomes more evident.
A circular economy reduces the negative environmental impact of creating sustainable technologies, the goodwill from which looks set to be an increasingly important part of the business going forward, especially for companies whose business is making sustainable energy.
End-of-Life Tech Management
The key to making sustainable energy more... well... sustainable, lies in what happens to devices—such as solar panels and wind turbines—when they reach their end-of-life. In this article, we have touched on the fact that it is currently expensive (and, as a result, uncommon) to reclaim things like rare earth metals from obsolete devices, but that is not the only way to recycle technology.
A circular economy will ensure that end-of-life technology is reclaimed wherever possible, and that means a range of options, such as resale, refurbishment, and even breaking up to use individual components as spares parts. There will be cases where decommissioning is the only practical option, of course, but a circular economy will ensure that it is the only practical option.
Ultimately, we as a society need to become more efficient for a variety of reasons, with man-made climate change being one of the more pressing issues we currently face. There is also the matter of adoption—the benefits of sustainable energy increase as it is adopted more widely, but the expense of sustainable energy technologies is a major hurdle to overcome. In a circular economy where resale and refurbishment are commonplace, the technology will become more attainable, if a little outdated.
Lurking in the background is the unavoidable fact that all of the materials we need to make sustainable energy technology are finite. Not only is the process of mining these resources often destructive to the environment, but it will also continue to get more destructive and more expensive as those materials become harder to find. With some estimates predicting that rare earth minerals, in particular, will run out within the next 100 years, a circular economy should be considered a necessity in the long term.