by Carla De Laurentis
COP 27 concluded on the 20th of November 2022 and stressed how the unprecedented global energy crisis underlines the urgency to rapidly transform energy systems and the need to accelerate towards a clean and just transition to renewable energy. Seizing the opportunities of cheaper renewables will play a major role in the forthcoming decade and as countries move towards carbon neutrality goals, reaching these goals will require increased efforts in renewable energy development and deployment. While there are numerous benefits globally from the growth in renewable generation, a pertinent environmental and policy issue in the next decades- one that has been given only limited and recent attention- is the consideration of the end-of-life of low carbon infrastructure.
Existing energy infrastructure, from conventional power generation plants to wind farms, have a technical and/or economic lifecycle predetermined by the gradual decreases of their performance or conversion efficiency over the infrastructure’s lifetime. At the end of this lifetime, it is expected that this infrastructure will contribute to a dramatic increase in waste generation. Most of the attention towards renewable energy infrastructure has predominantly focussed on the planning, design and construction of renewable energy projects driven by the need to decarbonise the energy sector, while overlooking the processes required for the management of the end of life and the decommissioning options of renewable infrastructure. Nevertheless, as waste arising from end-of-life renewable energy infrastructure is projected to grow over the next 10 years this is considered one of the biggest emerging environmental sustainability issues faced by countries globally.
To date, there have been limited number of studies that have focused on life extension, completed repowering, and or full decommissioning projects from which lessons can be learned. To address this knowledge gap, Dr Rebecca Windemer and I have joined forces- and research interests- to undertake a research project entitled ‘Is there an afterlife for wind installations in Italy?’. The project, funded by an Environmental and Sustainability Research Grant of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS-IBG), aims at investigating and understanding the different end of life moments, opportunities and challenges that are emerging in wind infrastructure in Italy. The Italian case offers a pertinent opportunity to investigate the supporting governance, environment, and business models of proposed solutions as approximately 50% of wind capacity is expected to reach end-of-life by 2030.
The research is ongoing and has so far included a number of qualitative interviews and a short survey with wind farm developers, operators, renewable consultants, and policy makers. We had a really successful visit to Italy in October 2022 where we conducted fifteen interviews, which we are in the process of analysing.
Initial findings suggest that, while determining end of life options for wind infrastructure is undoubtedly a decision unique to each project, there are a number of factors that are also influencing such decisions. Life extension, repowering and full decommissioning of wind infrastructures are multifaceted issues affected by technical, legal, economic, financial, social and environmental challenges. There is great value in understanding how these challenges coalesce as it provides an opportunity to better understand how much waste will be generated in the future and the range of possible options for dealing with that waste.