Image of an off-shore wind farm

10 years left to prepare for low carbon infrastructure decommissioning

New study highlights the immediate need to integrate circular economy into low carbon infrastructure planning to avoid colossal economic and environmental costs at end-of-use.

Low carbon infrastructure, such as wind turbines, form a critical element of actions for achieving net zero carbon targets. It is important to continue their rapid deployment. However, a new study by a team of researchers from the University of Leeds found that low carbon infrastructure is being developed with a linear “take-make-use-dispose” approach to resource use, with little consideration of what will happen with this infrastructure at the end of its service life.

This is a problem because many types of low carbon infrastructure and technologies (such as electric vehicles) rely on the same critical raw materials, especially neodymium and copper, with resource security issues looming at industrial, national and global scales. Moreover, the extraction and processing of raw materials and the manufacturing of components can have significant environmental impacts, which will be unnecessarily perpetuated without more considerate end-of-use management.

An in-depth review of offshore wind decommissioning plans found that developers and operators focused on recycling and “sustainable incineration” of resources. Such solutions hold limited economic and long term sustainability benefits compared to the reuse, repair and remanufacturing of components.

However, waste management measures for low carbon infrastructure are underdeveloped. This is a major issue, in particular for composite materials such as fibre-reinforced plastics found within wind turbine blades, for which waste management capacity is already minimal and commercially viable sustainable management solutions do not currently exist.

Dr Paul Jensen, lead author of the recently published study, explained that: “It is increasingly crucial for decommissioning to be seen as a point of system regeneration, not an end point”, adding: “In a perfect world we would have in the region of ten years to innovate and scale up industrial solutions that can ensure sustainable and resource conserving solutions for offshore wind farms and many other low carbon technologies. Given the early stage in which many of the end-of-use solutions still are, that is not a lot of time”.

Diagram outlining circular economy hierarchy for off-shore wind decommissioning. Designing waste out is the top, preferred option, whereas waste storage is at the bottom.
Figure 1: Whole system overview of circular economy strategies for offshore wind [1]

Renewables infrastructure should be designed at the development stage with a circular economy in mind, from design for durability, reparability, disassembly and recyclability, to extending component lifetime with better operations and maintenance, repair, reuse, refurbishment and remanufacturing, before recycling, energy recovery, and controlled storage are even considered as options.

The Resource Recovery from Waste programme has held conversations with industry since January 2017. A low carbon infrastructure stakeholder workshop in January 2018 showed that resource recovery and end-of-use management is only considered as an afterthought. This reflects the past myopic deployment of nuclear, oil, coal and gas infrastructure that left current generations with multi-billion pound clean-up bills that impact on public finances and the environment.

Low carbon infrastructure risks falling into the same mistakes as oil & gas and nuclear infrastructure decommissioning, resulting in significant losses of carbon savings and a clean-up bill that could be four to ten times higher than anticipated by industry. It is important to learn from previous decommissioning experiences and enable the integration of circular economy approaches into the design, operation and end-of-use management of low carbon infrastructure sectors.

Policy and regulation for end-of-use management has to be strengthened to improve the sustainability potential of low carbon infrastructure. Dr Anne Velenturf, Research Impact Fellow in Circular Economy and Sustainable Offshore Wind Development, said “this could be achieved by including an assessment of current availability of end-of-use management solutions, and planned approaches to develop solutions where there are currently none, in permit applications before renewables infrastructure are being deployed”.

Developing sustainable end-of-use solutions will depend on collaboration between stakeholders in industry, government, civic sector, and research and innovation. The University of Leeds will continue to make a positive contribution. The publication of this article coincides with the launch of a new EPSRC-funded secondment project to the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult and the Department for International Trade to start integrating a sustainable circular economy with offshore wind.

Contact

Further inquiries and expressions of interest to collaborate are very welcome. Please contact Dr Anne Velenturf, Research Impact Fellow in Circular Economy and Sustainable Offshore Wind Development at the University of Leeds, email A.Velenturf@leeds.ac.uk

References

  1. Jensen, P.D., Purnell, P., Velenturf, A.P.M. (2020) Highlighting the Need to Embed Circular Economy in Low Carbon Infrastructure Decommissioning: The Case of Offshore Wind. Sustainable Production and Consumption, Vol. 24: 266-280. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352550920304413
Building momentum for a sustainable circular economy for low carbon infrastructure:

The Resource Recovery from Waste programme has raised awareness on the importance and added value of circular economy approaches for low carbon infrastructure with numerous presentations, policy pieces and academic publications such as:

  • Velenturf, A.P.M., Jensen, P.D., Peterson, E., Piazolo, S., Purnell, P., Rattle, I., Van Alstine, J. (2020) EAC inquiry on Technological Innovations and Climate Change: Offshore Wind inquiry, written evidence submitted by the Geoscience & The Energy Transition and Resource Recovery from Waste teams. Environmental Audit Committee. https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/5236/pdf/
  • Invernizzi, D.C., Locatelli, G., Velenturf, A.P.M., Purnell, P., Love, P.E.D., Brookes, N.J. (2020) End-of-Life of Energy Infrastructure: Coming to Terms with an Unavoidable Problem. Energy Policy, Vol. 144: 111677. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421520304067
  • Velenturf, A.P.M., Jensen, P.D., Purnell, P. (2020) Response to Marine Scotland offshore renewables decommissioning guidance consultation. Marine Scotland. https://consult.gov.scot/marine-scotland/offshore-renewables-decommissioning-guidance/consultation/view_respondent?uuId=899194153
  • WindEurope (2019) Participated in first edition of WindEurope’s End-of-Life Issues and Strategies (EoLIS) event. Leuven, Belgium.
  • Velenturf, A.P.M., Archer, S.A., Gomes, H., Christgen, B., Lag-Brotons, A.J., Purnell, P. (2019) Circular Economy and the Matter of Integrated Resources. Science of The Total Environment, Vol. 689: 963-969. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969719330220
  • Jopson, J., Velenturf, A. (2019) Research and innovation challenges for resource recovery and circular economy. Resource Recovery from Waste.
  • POST (2019) Dr Danielle Sinnett, University of the West of England, was interviewed by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) team as part of the evidence gathering for a POST note on ‘Access to critical materials’.
  • Velenturf, A.P.M., Jensen, P.D, Purnell, P., Stefaniak, K. (June 2019) Blowing away economic, technical, social and environmental values? Closing the circle in the wind sector. Wind Energy Science Conference 2019, Cork, Ireland.
  • UKRI Circular Economy workshop (June 2019) Participated in UKRI workshop for the National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Research programme to coproduce priorities for research and innovation.
  • Velenturf, A.P.M., Purnell, P., Macaskie, L., Sapsford, D., Mayes, W. (2019) 1. A New Perspective on a Global Circular Economy. In: Resource Recovery from Waste: Towards a Global Circular Economy, edited by L. Macaskie, D. Sapsford, W. Mayes, Royal Society of Chemistry. https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/ebook/978-1-78801-381-9
  • Purnell, P., Velenturf, A.P.M., Marshall, R. (2019) 16. New governance for the circular economy: the policy, regulation and market context for resource recovery from waste. In: Resource Recovery from Waste: Towards a Global Circular Economy, edited by L. Macaskie, D. Sapsford, W. Mayes, Royal Society of Chemistry. https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/ebook/978-1-78801-381-9
  • SoS Minerals final conference (May 2019) Participated in the sister-programme of Resource Recovery from Waste, and raised awareness of RRfW’s activities on circular economy for low carbon infrastructure and interest to collaborate.
  • Velenturf, A.P.M., Jensen, P., Purnell, P., Stefaniak, K. (May 2019) Challenges and Opportunities in Offshore Wind Decommissioning. Invited presentation at Offshore Wind Connections 2019, Hull, UK.
  • Resource Recovery from Waste and NERC (March 2019) Organised workshop to coproduce priorities for research and innovation.
  • Velenturf, A.P.M. (January 2019) Resource recovery, circular economy and low-carbon infrastructure decommissioning. Invited presentation at workshop on sustainable futures for off-grid solar and batteries: whole systems approaches to recycling and waste. Durham, UK.
  • Resource Recovery from Waste Final conference: Resource Recovery for a Clean, Low-Carbon and Resource Efficient Economy  (January 2019)
  • Jensen, P.D. and Gibbs, D. (December 2018), Development of a Robust and Locally Inclusive Renewables Industry: A Regional Comparator Study. Hull, UK: Green Port Growth Programme. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333856770_Development_of_a_Robust_and_Locally_Inclusive_Renewables_Industry_A_Regional_Comparator_Study
  • Offshore Wind Innovation Hub (2018) Resource Recovery from Waste provided expert input into the repowering and decommissioning aspects of the OWIH’s technology innovation roadmap.
  • CrEAM (November 2018) Participated in launch event of Critical Elements and Materials (CrEAM) – Network and facilitated the coproduction of research priorities for legislation and business models.
  • Velenturf, A.P.M. and Purnell, P. (November 2018) Renewing Renewables. Tevi, University of Exeter, Porthtowan, UK.
  • Velenturf, A.P.M. (October 2018) Tevi Environmental Challenge Networks: Environmental Growth for Mining Related Businesses. REMIX, University of Exeter, Penryn, UK.
  • Purnell, P. (2018) Appointed Fellow on University of Cambridge Construction Engineering Masters programme on the subjects of Critical Materials and Automation of Construction.
  • Marshall. R., Velenturf, A., Jopson, J. (2018) Making the most of industrial wastes: strengthening resource security of valuable metals for clean growth in the UK. Policy and practice note. Resource Recovery from Waste.
  • Purnell, P, Velenturf, A.P.M., Jensen P.D., Cliffe, N., Jopson, S.J. (2018) Developing Technology, Approaches and Business Models for Decommissioning of Low-Carbon Infrastructure. Resource Recovery from Waste.
  • Velenturf, A.P.M., Purnell, P., Jensen, P.D. (2018) Consultation response on “Offshore renewables decommissioning guidance for industry: proposed updates” for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/offshore-renewables-decommissioning-guidance-for-industry-proposed-updates
  • University of Leeds, Resource Recovery from Waste and Innovate UK (January 2018) Organised the “Developing technology, approaches and business models for decommissioning of low-carbon infrastructure: Scoping workshop”. Leeds, UK.
  • Prakash, P. (September, 2017), An Investigation into the Sustainability Aspects and Impacts of Offshore Wind Operations and Maintenance Logistics: A Case Study in the Humber. Master of Science in Logistics and Supply Chain Management in the University of Hull Business School. Research Design and Supervision: Jensen, P.D. and Whicker, L.
  • Purnell, P. (2017) On a voyage of recovery: a review of the UK’s resource recovery from waste infrastructure. Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure, Vol. 4(1): 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1080/23789689.2017.1405654
  • Velenturf, A.P.M., Purnell, P., Jensen, P.D. (July 2017) Groundhog Day for Decommissioning? The Case of the Offshore Wind Industry. Invited presentation at Chartered Institution of Wastes Management London and Southern Counties, Waste Ahoy! Management of Offshore Wastes, London, UK.
  • Jensen, P.D. and BVG Associates (April 2017), Renewable Energy Policy for Regional Growth: A Workshop Report on the Policy and Mechanisms Required for the Continued Development of the Renewables Sector in the Green Port Hull Region [REVISED AND UPDATED EDITION]. Hull, UK: Green Port Growth Programme.
  • Velenturf, A.P.M., Jensen, P.D. and Purnell, P. (April 2017), Building Future Industries on the Strength of the Humber. A Policy Brief for Lord John Prescott. 4Innovation Research and Consultancy and Resource Recovery from Waste.
  • Jensen, P.D. and Joshi, R. (February 2017) Designed and developed the ‘Renewable Energy Policy for Regional Growth’ stakeholder workshop. 23-24 February, Hull, UK: Green Port Growth Programme.
  • Grimsby Renewables Partnership 2016 Annual Conference. Participation to raise awareness of circular economy for renewables infrastructure growth.
  • Busch, J., Steinberger, J.K., Dawson, D.A., Purnell, P., Roelich, K. (2014) Managing critical materials with a technology-specific stocks and flows model. Environmental Science and Technology, Vol. 48(2): 1298-1305. https://doi.org/10.1021/es404877u

Written by A Velenturf

Programme Co-ordination for the Resource Recovery from Waste Programme