The exponential growth of both on and off-shore wind energy is truly an environmental good news story of the past 25 years. It is estimated that there is no less than 600 gigawatts of wind energy capacity currently installed worldwide and the European Commission, in their long-term de-carbonization strategy to 2050, estimates that wind alone could provide 50% of the EU’s electricity demand by 2050.
But with as much as 6 million tons of composite wind turbine material in use in the wind industry globally and tens of thousands of tons of blades due for obsolescence in the near future without a cost-effective recycling / recovery plan, the environmental, commercial and regulatory challenge is as visible as a hillside wind farm.
Blades and Existing Composite Recycling – a Mismatch?
It would be inaccurate to portray the wind industry as having no sustainable materials pathway. In fact, it is estimated that as much as 85 to 90% of wind turbines’ total mass can be recycled, including the foundation, tower and components in the nacelle.
Turbine blades are, however, more challenging to recycle due to the composite materials used in their production – specifically, rigid fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) composites. While various technologies exist that can be used to process FRP composites, they typically require end-of-life materials to be available by the inch and are ill-equipped to handle towering 90 meter blades.
These technologies also fail to preserve the value in the structural integrity and material profile of the end-of-life blades, thereby allowing turbine blade recycling to remain less than economically viable at scale.
What’s Currently Available for the Recovery of Composites?
The composite industries have arguably avoided some of the most intense pressure for circular economy solutions felt by other industries, such as electronics, plastics/packaging and textiles. The current established practices for the treatment of end-of-life composites include:
- cement co-processing,
- mechanical grinding,
- thermal treatments (such as pyrolysis),
- thermo-chemical (solvolysis), or
- electro-mechanical (high voltage pulse fragmentation)
Cement co-processing is arguably the preferred technology for turbine blades at present but has not included the logistical and technological solutions for disassembling, collection, transportation, waste management and high value reintegration into secondary markets needed by the wind industry. Further, no composite recycling platform can currently eliminate the bugbears plaguing these blade recovery efforts: high investment costs, excessive transportation expenditures and high energy usage recycling.
With these challenges, the wind industry is also looking at reuse and repurposing as ways to best valorize and preserve the engineering and material composition feat which is a modern turbine blade. But just who wants such a monstrosity?
The Global Search for Secondary Markets
In an act that truly speaks to the Age of Waste, the wind industry is openly and actively soliciting cross-sector partners in an effort to find secondary markets for end-of-life blades instead of continuing to quietly landfill the material. WindEurope, for instance, has partnered with the composites and chemical industries in this quest and is looking for help with both legacy blades and future design improvements:
…the wind industry is actively looking for industries and sectors that can make use of the materials and equipment decommissioned from wind farms. And the wind industry wants to work with them to build capacities in wind turbine blade circularity, including through the development of new, more easily recyclable structural design and materials.
In other words, partnerships are being sought where the parties would, over time, jointly develop improved blade designs and material compositions to not only improve wind energy generation, but to better serve as feedstock for the partner industries.
Failure Will Lead to Compliance and Permitting Challenges
Finally, the urgency for a turbine blade recycling solution should not be understood as merely good public relations, or maybe the satisfaction of a self-imposed industry commitments around sustainability. Instead, as has already been demonstrated in other sectors, including those with less enviable environment footprints, a failure to address the waste impacts of the wind energy industry will have broader consequences.
Increasingly, the permitting of wind energy projects, like other resource projects, requires a decommissioning plan created as of the time of initial permitting and such plan remains an active part of the generator’s compliance obligations throughout the life of the project. A meaningful plan for the resource recovery of turbine blades will, in many countries, form part of the environmental application process.
And the range of waste management options for turbine blades is certainly narrowing. In Europe, for instance, France is imposing turbine blade recycling targets and many other EU countries have banned the landfilling of composites. Placeholder commitments and aspirational goals for turbine blade recycling will not be enough.
Industry’s long-term plan to invest in newer, more easily recyclable materials and designs for turbine blades is laudable. The legacy equipment, however, cannot be orphaned in this transition to a circular wind energy economy.