Renewable energy already accounts for over 50% of the newly installed power generation capacity (IRENA). As the power generation shifts towards renewables, oil and gas assets will need decommissioning and demand for materials will increase to meet the need for new energy infrastructure. However, secondary materials are rarely available. The majority of materials and equipment from old energy infrastructure is downcycled rather than reused or repurposed. Whereas recycling processes for renewable energy equipment are not widespread yet, mainly because until now, the issue of their disposal and recycling has not existed on a large scale.
The circular economy could reduce virgin material extraction and offer high-value alternatives through recycling and decommissioning old energy infrastructure—from recycling glass in solar panels to repurposing wind turbines into bikeshed and bridges. The global market for disposal and recycling of solar and wind equipment could be worth upwards of $360 million by 2024, meaning great opportunities for green job and workforce development (Better Energy). Repurposing and recycling these assets can also reduce emissions associated with the disposal of their components and create revenue to finance decommissioning through the reselling of components at end-of-life.
Local governments can facilitate this transition by setting the right regulations that enable repurposing and recycling of these assets, offer upskilling and reskilling opportunities for workers that could focus on decommissioning and recycling assets as we move away from building new facilities, and require approved end-of-life management plans to be included in tenders for energy projects managed by the city. Governments can also support research on recycling technologies and ensure that financial resources are available for end of life handling of the equipment even if the original parties are unable to perform it (e.g. if they have gone out of business)—via a performance bond or other surety.