Why dispose of when you can recycle? The wind energy industry is coming up with innovative ways to find new, sustainable use for wind turbines that have reached the end of their life expectancy – instead of just burying them at landfills. Recycling experts from wind-swept Denmark are demonstrating industry leadership in turning “garbage to gold”.
During the past couple of years, media reports have uncovered how old wind turbine blades are piling up in landfills in Texas, Wyoming, Iowa, and other places, creating so-called “wind turbine graveyards”. This happens because the wind energy industry has been struggling to find sustainable solutions for accumulating quantities of worn-out wind turbine blades.
A great number of turbines are approaching the end of their initial 20-25 years life expectancy. In the U.S. alone, about 8,000 aging blades will be removed annually in the coming years. Europe has about 3,800 coming down annually through at least 2022, according to BloombergNEF. In some repowering projects, turbine decommissioning is required even before reaching 20 years. All of this raises the question of what to do with the dismantled turbines.
Toward 100 per cent recyclability
It is well-known within the wind power industry that as much as 90 per cent of a turbine can be recycled. Less fully understood is that to achieve the much-sought-after “100 per cent recycling” milestone, we still need to find a sustainable after-life solution for the blades.
Blades are, in fact, fully recyclable, as Recharge News has reported. There are already mature technologies that use blades as feedstock in cement co-processing, for instance, and the ‘granulates’ of recovered fiberglass and other materials put through mechanical grinding can be used for a range of new products.
However, recycling wind turbine blades remains a challenge, as the blades are designed to be lightweight, yet durable, making them challenging to break apart. Consequently, most decommissioned blades are landfilled today.
In the coming decade, wind turbines will be deployed at an unprecedented pace, delivering clean renewable energy to industries and to several hundreds of million people, making it even more important to discharge the blades in a sustainable way.
Danish wind industry all in on circularity
In June 2021, Danish renewable energy company Ørsted committed to either reuse, recycle, or recover all the wind turbine blades in its global portfolio of onshore and offshore wind farms upon decommissioning.
Ørsted has so far constructed 7.5 GW of offshore wind and 1.7 GW of onshore wind. Up until now, the company has only decommissioned the offshore wind farm Vindeby in Denmark – by the way, the world’s first offshore wind farm (1991) – where the blades from the 11 wind turbines were all reused. With its ambition to install 30 GW of offshore wind and 17.5 GW of onshore energy production by 2030, Ørsted believes they have a clear responsibility to help find solutions to the challenge of recycling blades.
Ørsted is already contributing to advance the technologies that can recycle wind turbine blades in a sustainable way as a founding partner of the cross-sector DecomBlades consortium consisting of 10 wind industry companies and research institutions. The consortium seeks to investigate and develop solutions to recycle the composite material in wind turbine blades.
Many of the DecomBlades partners already work dedicated with blade recycling. For instance, Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas leads a new initiative entitled “CETEC”, which aims to make blades fully recyclable.
Danish wind turbine blade manufacturer LM Wind Power is engaged in the “ZEBRA” project, which brings together industrial companies and technical centers to demonstrate on a full scale the technical, economic, and environmental relevance of thermoplastic wind turbine blades, with an eco-design approach to facilitate recycling.
Another recycling initiative, “DecomTools”, aims to devise and develop eco-innovative concepts to reduce the cost of decommissioning, minimize the environmental footprint and increase the know-how and expertise of involved stakeholders.
Future ban on landfilling?
The clock may also be ticking for the wind power industry, so action is needed. In June this year, the European wind industry organization, WindEurope, called upon the European Commission to propose a Europe-wide ban on landfilling decommissioned wind turbine blades. The ban should enter into force by 2025 and also apply to other large composite components in the nacelles of modern wind turbines. The Danish wind industry has announced its full support to WindEurope’s recycling position.
Two Danish examples of recycling wind turbines
Several recycling projects show the way for a more circular future in the wind industry.
Danish company WindTech has refurbished three second-hand 50 Hz wind turbines into new 60 Hz wind turbines that will be used at a wind farm outside Houston, Texas.
Wind turbines have often been accused of generating too much noise and bothering neighbors. However, in the future, some of them will actually help to prevent noise nuisance. As the result of a collaboration between the Danish sustainable energy company Ørsted and Danish fiberglass recycling company Miljøskærm, the material from retired wind turbines is turned into noise screens along Danish roads.