The wind is great for producing electricity with no greenhouse gas emissions. But there’s a dirty secret: what happens to turbines at the end of their lives?
This week, a study by the University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute revealed the vast waste legacy of disused wind turbines.
And the problem is only getting worse.
And as more countries switch from gas to wind energy, the problem will only get worse. This is how the German government wants to build between 1,000 and 1,500 new wind turbines every year.
The life cycle of a wind turbine is approximately 20-25 years. And it is estimated that approximately 14,000 wind turbine blades in Europe should be dismantled by 2023.
Why is it so difficult to recycle or reuse wind turbines?
According to the head of research, Professor Peter Majewski, the cost of recycling and the low market value of reclaimed markets make it unrealistic to expect a market-based recycling solution.
“So policymakers need to step in now and plan what we’re going to do with all these blades that will go offline in the coming years.”
About 85% of a wind turbine is already recyclable. The problem is the material in the blades. They are made of fiberglass/epoxy matrix composites to withstand all weather conditions. Both materials are difficult to degrade.
Traditionally, the industry has dealt with leftover wind turbines by dumping them in landfills or burning them in cement factories – and burning fiberglass isn’t good for the environment either!
But as the industry tries to clean up its work, entrepreneurial companies are finding ways to create a circular, zero-waste solution that bypasses landmass and reduces the industry’s carbon footprint.
Since 2020, Veolia turns GE Renewable Energy’s wind turbine blades into raw material for use in cement production, replacing the coal, sand and clay needed to make cement. This results in a 27% reduction in CO2 emissions.
In the U.S, Global Financial Solutions turns blades into production grade fibers, pellets, construction materials, panels and more.
In Poland, recycling company anmet dismantling wind turbines. It is developing technology to recover carbon fiber from the blades for use in the production of laminates and other raw materials.
Some of the disassembled blades are reused and cut for use by the German company Wings for life which they use to make original garden furniture and works of art.
PR problems traditionally plague wind turbines
Wind power hasn’t had the smoothest ride with the public. An example is the noise they produce when placed in residential areas. They also kill birds. Wind farms in Germany do not give an average more than 100,000 birds per year. (However, glass-covered buildings kill about 108 million birds and 70 million die each year from collisions with moving transport. So it could be worse).
Cybersecurity Challenges are endemic. Some turbines are still running on Windows 2000 – yes, you read that right. And security updates in Windows 2000 ended in 2010.
Efforts currently exist to bring end-of-life wind turbines to life. But they don’t really represent a definitive commitment to end-of-life circular design and critical planning.
Prof Majewski says the small market for reclaimed materials means production costs have to factor in the cost of recycling the blades:
“Either the manufacturer takes responsibility for what to do with the blades at the end of their life, or wind farm operators must provide end-of-life solutions as part of their business planning approval process.”
So the industry has to take responsibility for this – they’ve had long enough to develop a solution! And if countries try to move away from gas, we really need them to stand up or be responsible for the industry’s worst PR yet.