FT Rethink

From landfill to a new life: dealing with wind turbines' little-known problem

There are two graveyards in the town of Sweetwater1 in Texas. In one are rows of gravestones. In the other is an altogether different sight – thousands of enormous turbine blades laid flat across a vast field. It is not a unique image. In the Casper Regional Landfill in Wyoming2, row after row of blades which were once turning with the wind are now covered in soil by tractors.

It is a view of another side of renewable energy generation that the public does not often get to see. Now the question being asked is what to do with the equipment that we use to make sustainable energy when it needs to be recycled itself.

The issue is a growing problem within the wind industry. While 85% of the turbines can be recycled efficiently, there is a problem with the blades due to the materials used to make them. Thousands of wind turbines are now approaching the end of their 20-year lifetime, with more than 6,500 blades to be removed each year in Europe until 2025 and about 1,400 to be removed in the US through the same period. So the race is on to find solutions.

While 85% of the turbines can be recycled efficiently, there is a problem with the blades due to the materials used to make them…So the race is on to find a solution

The winds of change

Heavy storms at the start of the year in the UK spelled bad news for many, but were a boon to wind generation across the country. The 100 miles an hour speeds generated an all-time high of more than 19,500 megawatts – over half the UK's electricity.

Such events have shown how far wind generation has developed and the difference that it can make to the sustainable supply of power at a time when the gas market is in turmoil. Last year saw a record year of growth for renewable energy with about 290GW of new generation capacity, despite the pandemic. Renewables now represent 29% of global electricity production.3 This growth comes in the form of wind turbines and solar panels and it is expected that the sector will exceed fossil fuels and nuclear by 2026.

But now that wind energy has been in place for some time and turbines have become a regular feature of the land and seascape, swaths of the equipment is reaching the end of its lifespan. Which creates a problem.

Read also: Storage technologies: paving the way for a renewable energy future

Recycling the renewables

After their decades of service, turbines must be replaced. And while 85% of them can be recycled as they are made of steel and copper, amongst other materials, there is a problem with plastic polymer blades which can be very difficult to break down.

As a result, they end up in landfills such as Wyoming and Texas and the problem is expected to worsen. As they are robust structures built to sustain the harsh weather conditions, finding a solution in how to dispose of them has become an on-going concern for the industry. In Europe, the blades have been burned to create cement and power but the energy content is low and the effect increases pollution in the air.

Investors who are eager to pursue a strategy which embraces circularity and sustainability may look on the vast graveyards of forgotten blades and consider how this sits with their worldview

Read also: Cracking the plastic crisis?

 

Hunting for a solution

Investors who are eager to pursue a strategy which embraces circularity and sustainability may look on the vast graveyards of forgotten blades and consider how this sits with their worldview.

While the scale of the problem may mean that these graveyards are a long way from being a thing of the past, there are significant efforts being made to bring the 85% recyclability up to 100%.

In Denmark, where wind energy makes up half of the country's needs, Siemens Gamesa has produced the first recyclable blades ready for commercial use offshore. The blades are made from materials cast together with resin, which can be separated from the other components at the end of the working life of the blade.

Also in Denmark, a coalition of scientists have formed CETEC (Circular Economy for Thermosets Epoxy Composites) which aims within three years to produce solutions to make the blades fully recyclable and commercially viable.

While the scale of the problem may mean that these graveyards are a long way from being a thing of the past, there are significant efforts being made to bring the 85% recyclability up to 100%

Meanwhile in Norway, wind farm builders Akers Offshore Wind and Strathclyde University have come up with a way to extract fibreglass from used turbine blades for reuse.

There are also novel uses for the blades. Staff from the Munster Technological University in Ireland have used the structures to build a new pedestrian bridge. And in the United States, scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology used a section of a blade as the roof on a house.

 

In time?

It is an unfortunate reality that blades will continue to be sent to landfill for some time as the number which are being decommissioned continues at such a high level. But while the graveyards may be set to continue for some time, solutions are in the pipeline.

 

1 https://www.rte.ie/news/us/2021/1112/1259429-texas-wind-farm/
2 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-02-05/wind-turbine-blades-can-t-be-recycled-so-they-re-piling-up-in-landfills
3 https://www.iea.org/reports/global-energy-review-2021/renewables

Important information

This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

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