As the public discussion on climate change widens, the concept of circular economy gains more momentum by the day. The widespread production and consumption models that characterise our societies can be defined as "linear": this implies extracting resources from the Earth, utilising them to craft products or services, and eventually throwing away the discards.
Circular economy, on the contrary, aims at revolutionising the linear model, disrupting the take – make – dispose structure and decoupling economic activities from the consumption of finite resources. The aim of such an approach is to prevent waste being produced in the first place and, when not possible, to make sure that every element of a productive process will either be recycled or re-utilised across all the phases of production, utilisation and disposal.
Such a shift can and must be conceived as strictly related to renewable energy: as a matter of fact, the transition towards full sustainability will come at a cost, which can be considerably mitigated and transformed in social, environmental and economic benefit with the adoption of circular economy principles.
The overlap between renewables and circular economy emerges from the initial stages of the energy value chain, namely the extraction of raw materials. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), achieving zero carbon emissions by 2040 will stimulate an increase between 20 and 40 times in the demand of critical materials (cobalt, lithium and rare earths). The side effects of this growth are a labour and resource-intensive mining process, a considerable environmental impact and a constant reliance on importation from producing countries. By contrast, applying circular economy principles (reusing, recycling, etc.) will enable the recovery of 60 million tonnes of the aforementioned materials, paving the road for a more intensive and less impactful deployment of renewable energy infrastructures.
The intersection between renewable energy and circular economy is fruitful also at a further stage of the value chain, when the infrastructures are up and running. Digital and automated technologies provide an effective tool for monitoring the conditions of plants, grids and other components, planning adequate maintenance and suggesting the best time to dismantle their components and give them a new life.
Circular economy can also be the way to go when the renewable energy infrastructures reach the end of their life cycle. Within a few decades, according to IRENA, 78 million tons of old photovoltaic modules and 43 million tons of wind turbines will need to be dismantled. Nonetheless, thanks to circular economy, dismissed structural elements can be be reintroduced in the productive cycle of the RE industry, or in other sectors where there is a high request for materials.For instance, Siemens Gamesa has recently presented the world's first fully recyclable wind turbine, crafted with a special resin that allows an easy separation (and re-utilisation) of its components, once the lifespan of the turbine is over. Another instance is the Wind New Life project, promoted by Enel Green Power and aimed at developing a full circular model for all the segments of the wind value chain, also thanks to the involvement of innovative start-ups operating in the field.
All the aforementioned processes can be a cornerstone for Africa's sustainable development: the continent is experiencing a fast-paced population growth and, subsequently, an increasing energy demand. When intertwined with the deployment of renewable energy sources, circular economy can be a way to overcome the wasteful practices related to such a transformation, while creating new entrepreneurial niches in the process, and allowing African companies and start-ups to become more appealing to financial institutions. Circularity principles and renewable energy can also work in synergy to boost African local development: solar panels can be used as a protection against sun for some specific crops, used car batteries can be adapted as stationary energy storage to support local grids, while safe and law-abiding e-waste collection can provide the renewable energy market with new, low-cost materials, while also creating job opportunities and reducing public health hazards.
At the forefront of this new approach are some African countries (Rwanda, Ethiopia, Senegal, etc.), which inaugurated conspicuous investment plans in circular economy, but also new cross-country programmes such as Switch Africa Green, promoted by Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Mauritius and Burkina Faso.
In conclusion, circular economy and renewable energy can and must be thought as deeply connected and mutually beneficial. Encouraging their joint development through tailored measures (incentives, tax exemptions, national regulations and programmes, public/private partnerships, etc.) can be a key action, for Africa, to achieve full sustainability, while making sure that such a process produces a minimum environmental impact, with a high amount of positive externalities.