Recycling wind turbine blades to ensure an environmentally positive impact

Recycling wind turbine blades?


The Wind Energy Industry has a huge commitment, not only to provide energy efficiency but to ensure an environmentally positive impact. Wind power is proven to be sustainable by its reduction in CO2 emissions while being a green solution. Nevertheless, the commitment goes beyond windfarms’ operation and energy production. Huge progress has been made and almost every part of a wind turbine can be recycled, but the blades happen to be the main concern, as they can be up to 80 meters long and 35 metric tons of weight. This future amount of waste is the reason why the industry needs to make all parts and components fit into a circular economy.

Renewables have been used since ancient times, sunlight for making fire, wind for propelling ships and turning windmills, and water power to turn watermills, but it was not until the 1980s when wind energy, as we know it, started to be commercialized. Since then, thousands of wind farms have been installed around the globe. According to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), in 2017 there were more than 341,000 wind turbine generators (WTG) worldwide accounting for 546’388 MW of installed capacity. Now imagine the waste, when each MW of installed capacity represents 9.6 tons of composite waste (Arias F, 2016). Having these numbers in mind, where are all these huge parts disposed of once they have reached their lifetime after 20 to 25 years of operation?

Thinking of wind turbine blades measures and weight, there are not enough landfills. So, what’s going to happen in the short run? Over the next five years 14,000 wind turbines are expected to be decommissioned (WindEurope), most of them may be burned or disposed into land fills, which paradoxically detracts from the positive effect wind energy has on environmental impact, but there’s hope. Manufacturers, engineering companies, universities, and research laboratories have found a way to make blades usable in different contexts.

The most known solution is to use turbine blades fiber glass for cement co-processing, an idea that was first developed in Germany about a decade ago. Though financing and research are needed to make it massive, this concept has been approached by US, Ireland, and Northern Ireland universities, which are partnering to use fiber glass in civil engineering projects like pedestrian bridges. Other solutions aim to use this same fiber for pallets and warehouse infrastructure like EcoPoly Pellets has been doing in the US.

The most substantial change comes within manufacturers by introducing new materials that allow an easier recycling process. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory team has been using a thermoplastic resin, developed by Arkema Inc., which can be reheated and therefore recycled. More than that, it takes less time and less heat to build the blades. They ca nbe manufactured on-site, further reducing costs. The blades can be stronger, lighter, longer, and more easily repaired.

Recycling and making blades fit into circularity are needs the industry is looking forward to solve for wind energy to become more sustainable. Bearing in mind we are still in a starting phase, new projects and a whole economy aiming to reuse blades materials will emerge in the upcoming years.

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