A dirty road to clean energy - Is circular economy the solution?


Last week, the A-studio discussed emissions and environmental damage caused by the construction of solar and wind power. A circular economy was proposed as a solution; power plants should be built for easy recycling. However, the circular economy could be started even today by utilizing secondary raw materials.

Likainen tie uusiutuvaan energiaan - tuulivoimaloita pellolla

A-studio declared that the world in in an energy revolution. The need for renewable enerfy such as wind power and solar panels will incrase exponentially in the coming yeas. It is estimated that European wind power construction should double compared to last year if the EU's 2030 targets are to be met. This would require tens of thousands of new wind farms build in Europe. There is an equal need to build solar panels as well.

The availability of critical materials for wind turbines, solar panels and electric car batteries could become even a global problem. Where do the necessary minerals and metals come from? They come from mines. And when metals are mined and processed, the environment is the one to suffer.

Could we recycle existing raw materials for renewable energy needs?

It is clear that the green transition will require enormous amount of natural resources. According to A-studio's guest, Sitra's director Mari Pantsari, the solution could be found in a circular economy:

“Panels, wind power, technology and batteries need to be designed to keep materials in circulation. That's the only way to keep the planet viable. ”

That is the way to go, of course. The problem, however, is the life cycle of several decades of wind and solar power plants before parts end up in circulation. Of course, planning for recycling needs to start already, but solutions are needed to help achieve emissions targets today.

“Finland has excellent circular economy goals, the consumption of primary raw materials in Finland in 2035 must not be higher than in 2015. We need to improve the productivity of materials and move towards a circular economy that utilizes materials that are already in society without the need for these new metals and minerals in the future,” says Pantsar.

In practice, this means that we need to make more and more use of secondary raw materials.

Where can we find these secondary raw materials?

Large quantities of secondary raw materials are already available. They can be found, for example, in industrial and process by-products, waste streams and electronic waste.

Currently, an unfortunate amount of valuable elements are not utilized and end up as waste. For example, in addition to copper and gold, electronic scrap is rich in rare earths. It is estimated that a ton of mobile phones contains up to a hundred times more gold than a ton of gold ore.

Separating raw materials from waste materials is challenging, so the easiest solution would be to capture materials drectly from process or by-product streams. These streams contain enormous amounts of dissolved metals and other raw materials which usually are treated as waste.

Weeefiner's technology has been developed precisely for the selective recovery of these materials. Our goal is to recover materials that seem insignificnt and to turn them into valuable products. Recovered materials could be used as building materials for renewable energy technology, for example. The recovery technology and sources of raw materials do exist already, so we do not have to wait decades for the circular economy of critical materials to start - we can kickstart the sustainable use of raw materials today. 

You can find the Likainen tie puhtaaseen energiaan episode from Yle Areena.