“Not so green energy” reads the Daily Mail headline. “Hundreds of non-recyclable wind turbine blades are pictured piling up in landfill”.
It’s a fairly typical news story about one of the downsides of wind energy. There have been plenty of articles on end of life turbines, some of them useful, and some of them gleeful takedowns of technologies some people oppose. Either way, it’s best not take these articles as the final word. There is a difference between something being ‘non-recyclable’ and ‘not commercially recyclable yet’.
I’ve already described this difference with solar panels. It’s not that solar panels can’t be recycled, but that there haven’t been enough end-of-life panels entering the waste stream for companies to develop techniques for processing them. Now that early solar installations are being retired, there’s enough to do something with them. And so companies emerge to fill that niche. Solar companies form partnerships with waste processors. Ideally, regulators bring in new guidelines to ensure best practice.
It’s not that the problem solves itself and it can all be left to the market. It’s not inevitable that the market responds with solutions to waste problems – see plastics. But it’s not really possible to create large scale waste solutions in the abstract, in advance, and have it all ticking over waiting for the inputs.
The first commercial wind farm in Britain will celebrate its 30th birthday this year. Since wind turbines last 30 years or so, it’s really only very recently that there’s been any such thing as obsolete wind turbines. It’s a new problem, and just because some of them are being buried in the ground in Wyoming doesn’t mean that all of them are destined for landfill.
So what are these emerging solutions? Is anyone recycling wind turbines?
As the title of this post makes clear, yes, wind turbines can be recycled and people are doing it. The steel in the mast is easily reprocessed and that happens as a matter of course.
Specifically, it’s the blades that are the problem. This is what we see being bulldozed into landfill, because the blades are made of composite materials, carbon fibre or glass fibre that is notoriously hard to deal with. So how is blade recycling going?
There have been some creative proposals for re-using old blades. There’s a school playground in Rotterdam that reuses them in a variety of creative ways. A project in Mexico developed ways of slicing the blades into roofing components and designed homes around them. Engineers in Poland made a footbridge. Neither of these are a sustainable solution at scale though.
Another approach is to dismantle the blades and then grind them up. The German company Roth has designed a process that separates the materials in composites and processes them in this way. A project partnership project in Denmark does something similar, recovering the materials for use in concrete. Recovered materials can be used in plastics, construction board, or resin for making glue or paint. This is technically down-cycling, so while it’s all useful, we should be looking for something better than that.
And there is something better than that. Again in Denmark, a consortium of wind power companies have been working on fully recyclable blades. Research has focused on techniques to separate composite materials, and on materials that are a better fit for a circular economy. There has been progress on both aspects and in September 2021 Siemens Gamesa announced that their recycleable blade was ready for commercial use on offshore turbines.
Others are also on the case. Vestas have announced that they have a process to fully break down composite materials into epoxy and fibres, both of which can be used to make new wind turbines. It’s not quite cradle to cradle yet, but there is extensive research going into pushing recycling rates that last mile to 100%. One initiative in France goes by the name ‘ZEBRA project’, a liberal approach to the acronym that stands for Zero wastE Blade ReseArch. They are working with thermoplastics and resins that are known to be more easily recycled, designing in reuse from the start.
In short, it is possible to deal with obsolete wind turbines responsibly, blades and all. There are good solutions already, and better ones on the way. The important thing now is to support them at the early stage, bring the price down, and create clear lines of responsibility for old tech. Get this right, and ultimately the idea of burying old wind power infrastructure in the dirt will look very old-fashioned indeed.