Wind turbines have become a popular source of renewable energy that has the potential to replace traditional power plants fueled by fossil fuels. However, as these turbines age and need to be replaced, the question of what to do with the old blades has become increasingly important.
Wind turbine blades are complex structures made of a combination of materials, including fiberglass, carbon fiber, and resin. This makes it difficult to recycle them using traditional methods. Fortunately, several innovative companies have begun to offer solutions to this problem. In this article, we will explore some of the ways that companies can recycle wind turbine blades and reduce their impact on the environment.
Environmental impact of wind turbine blades
The use of wind turbines has become increasingly popular in the wind industry as a source of renewable energy. However, the environmental impact of wind turbine blades has become a growing concern. While wind turbines are a clean source of energy, their turbine blades are made of composite materials that are difficult to recycle.
Currently, when wind turbine blades reach the end of their operational life, they end up in landfills. According to a study by Windeurope in 2021, 2.5 million tonnes of blades will reach the end of their operational life annually by 2025. This poses a significant environmental problem as the blades are not biodegradable and take up space in landfills.
To address this issue, blade manufacturers such as Vestas and LM Wind Power are developing recyclable wind turbine blades made from thermoplastic resin instead of thermoset resin. Thermoplastic resin allows for easier blade recycling as it can be melted down and reused to make new blades.
Blade recycling is also possible through chemical recycling, which breaks down the blades into smaller components that can be reused in various applications. Chemical recycling is a more complex process but has the potential to create a circular economy for thermoset epoxy composites.
Several recycling companies such as Stena Recycling and Global Fiberglass Solutions are developing recycling technologies to address the issue of landfilling wind turbine blades. The European Wind Innovation Fund and Innovation Fund Denmark are also investing in new chemical processes to recycle composite materials.
There are also options for reusing wind turbine blades. Retired blades can be repurposed into building materials or even cement. Spanish wind energy company IRT Jules Verne has developed a process to incorporate blades into cement, reducing the carbon dioxide emissions associated with cement production.
In the next 5 years, the wind energy sector must demonstrate the technical and economic viability of blade recycling and reuse. As more turbines reach the end of their operational life, it is essential to establish a circular economy for thermosets epoxy composites and reduce the environmental impact of wind turbine blades.
How companies can recycle retired blades
As wind turbines reach the end of their operational life, the turbine blades are decommissioned and need to be disposed of or recycled. The disposal of retired blades in landfills is not ideal as they take up valuable space and may not break down for centuries. Fortunately, there are options for recycling turbine blades.
One solution is to recycle the blades into smaller pieces that can be used as building materials. Some companies, such as Vestas and GE Renewable Energy, have begun to implement circular economy strategies to reuse the blade material in active wind farms. Other companies, such as LM Wind Power, are looking into the possibility of turning blades into cement.
Chemical recycling is another form of recycling that some companies are exploring. This process involves breaking down the blades into their chemical components, such as resin, which can then be reused to make new materials. This is a difficult process and requires specialized technology, but companies such as Stena Recycling and Global Fiberglass Solutions are developing new recycling technologies to make it more viable.
Another option for retired blades is repowering, which involves replacing older turbines with newer, more efficient models. This process not only extends the life of the wind farm but also reduces carbon dioxide emissions. By 2025, the European wind energy sector aims to demonstrate the technical and economic feasibility of repowering 50 gigawatts of onshore and offshore wind power capacity.
In addition to repowering, the Innovation Fund Denmark has launched a project known as “IRT Jules Verne” to develop a new technology for recycling thermoset epoxy composites, which make up the majority of wind turbine blades. The project aims to turn this process into a commercial solution that can be implemented at scale within the next five years.
Challenges to blade recycling
While recycling retired wind turbine blades may seem like an obvious solution to reduce waste and environmental impact, there are several challenges to blade recycling that make it a complex issue for the wind industry.
One major challenge is that wind turbine blades are made of composite materials, which are difficult to recycle. Most blades are made of fiberglass or carbon fiber reinforced polymers (CFRP), which are lightweight and durable, but cannot be easily broken down or separated into their component materials. This makes traditional recycling methods such as melting or shredding ineffective, as these processes do not efficiently separate the composite materials.
Another challenge is the sheer volume of retired blades. As wind turbines become more widespread, more blades will reach the end of their operational life and need to be decommissioned. It is estimated that by 2050, the wind industry could generate around 43 million tonnes of waste from retired blades alone, according to the European Union-funded project Re-Wind. Finding ways to manage this waste stream effectively will be crucial to minimize the environmental impact of wind power.
Additionally, the lack of a circular economy for composite materials presents a challenge to blade recycling. While some companies are exploring ways to reuse or repurpose retired blades, there is currently no established market for recycled composite materials. This means that recycling solutions for wind turbine blades may not be economically viable or sustainable in the long term.
Furthermore, some recycling methods, such as chemical recycling, require significant energy and resources to implement, which could offset some of the environmental benefits of blade recycling. Additionally, these methods are still in the developmental stage and are not yet widely available or cost-effective.
Finally, logistical challenges such as transportation and storage can also make blade recycling difficult. Wind turbines are often located in remote areas or offshore, which can make it difficult and expensive to transport large, bulky blades to recycling facilities. Additionally, storing decommissioned blades in a safe and environmentally responsible manner can also be a challenge, as blades can take up a significant amount of space in landfills and may pose a risk of leaching harmful chemicals into the soil or groundwater.
Recycling solutions for wind power
Here are some ideas to reduce waste from wind power:
- Repurpose blades for construction: Wind turbine blades are made from composite materials that are difficult to recycle. However, the blades can be repurposed for construction applications, such as building bridges, roads, or even houses. Some companies have started to explore this option, and it has the potential to create a new market for wind turbine blade waste.
- Use blades for fuel: Another option is to use wind turbine blades as a fuel source. Some companies are exploring ways to turn the blades into fuel pellets that can be burned for energy. While this may not be the most sustainable option, it can still help to reduce the amount of waste generated by wind power.
- Recover rare earth metals: Wind turbines contain rare earth metals that are critical for many high-tech applications. Recycling these metals can help to reduce the demand for new mining operations, which can be environmentally damaging. Some companies are exploring ways to recover these metals from wind turbine components, such as the magnets in the generator.
- Use recycled materials for turbine components: Wind turbine components can be made from recycled materials, such as steel or aluminum. Using recycled materials can reduce the environmental impact of wind power and help to create a more circular economy.
- Develop closed-loop recycling systems: To create a truly sustainable recycling solution for wind power, closed-loop recycling systems can be developed. This would involve designing wind turbines with materials that can be easily recycled or reused, and then establishing a system for collecting and recycling the components at the end of their lifecycle.