The second most-read story on last year was one that was actually published almost four years ago: An investigative report about what happens to solar panels when they’ve clocked their time as energy-producing members of society and are ready to retire.

It turns out that the way panels are designed makes disassembly and recovery of the various components — from glass to the various precious metals in them such as cadmium, gallium, germanium, indium, selenium and tellurium — a complicated process. Most wind up at shredders or landfills, because the case for selling the glass and aluminum in then doesn’t make economic sense.

Since that story first ran, not a whole lot has changed. But a project at Arizona State University hopes to create a solar recycling process that makes it simpler to recover materials such as silicon and silver from photovoltaic technology in a way that makes the economics pencil. Those researchers in early December received a $485,000 grant under a Department of Energy program focused on promoting circular economy processes in advanced manufacturing. Manufacturer First Solar is also kicking in funding, and it’s worth noting that several other solar manufacturing or recycling initiatives were also recipients of funding.

We face a similar conundrum with wind turbines, so I wasn’t surprised to see that another story in the GreenBiz Top 25 most-read articles for 2021 is an article penned by senior energy analyst Sarah Golden about the fate of massive wind turbine blades after they’re plucked off their towering stems. In the European Union, some are burned and some are buried. There aren’t many options for recycling, although some major developers such as Ørsted have pledged to recover, recycle or reuse the blade components decommissioned from its projects. As the company reports: "Today, between 85 percent and 95 percent of a wind turbine can be recycled, but recycling of wind turbine blades remains a challenge, as the blades are designed to be lightweight, yet durable, making them challenging to break apart."

And therein lies the rub: Design priorities.

Read the full article about circular design in climate tech by Heather Clancy at GreenBiz.