Wind energy has been increasing in popularity as more individuals, businesses and governments try to achieve their climate goals and become sustainable and green. However, this technology might no be as clean as we thought.
The problem lays with the metal turbine blades, which are non-biodegradable. It is estimated that, technically, 85% of a wind turbine is actually recyclable; however, it’s difficult to recycle them properly in a cost-efficient way. Thus, expired blades mostly reside in landfills. It’s worth mentioning that newer models of wind turbine blades have an average lifespan of 20 years, meaning that older molders have been piling up for ages. By 2050, 39.8 million tonnes of material from the wind industry will still be awaiting disposal.
Your average wind turbine comprises of three blades of around 50 meters in length each. These blades have around 20 tonnes of fibre reinforced polymer (FRP) composites. According to a report by WindEurope, Cefic and EuCIA, 10% of the total FRP waste in Europe comes from wind turbine blades alone. The nature of the composites –which are made from materials such asglass fibres, resins, foams– makes them non-biodegradable and difficult to recycle. Because of this, several European countries have promptly introduced bans on the use of FRP composite in landfills and others countries around the world are planning to introduce requirements for the recyclability of the entire turbines, including the blades. That begs the question, how do we dispose of these non-biodegradable blades in a sustainable way?
Thankfully, some companies have already asked themselves this question and have started developing solutions. One such company is Spain-based Siemens Gamesa, which has successfully created the world’s first fully recyclable turbine blade, fitly named the RecyclableBlade. The breakthrough has inspired the company to set up a goal by 2040 to make turbines fully recyclable.
Gregorio Acero, Head of Quality Management & Health, Safety, and Environment at Siemens Gamesa said: “Our aspiration is to produce wind turbines that can generate renewable electricity for 20-30 years. When they reach the end of their useful life, we can separate the materials and use them for new relevant applications. The RecyclableBlade is a great step in that direction and well ahead of our 2040 goal.”
Thanks to Siemens Gamesa’s new powerful technology, it is now possible to separate the blade materials and recycle them adeptly and adequately to use them in further applications. This represents a great step forward in order to achieve 100% sustainable turbines around the world. The Spanish company has successfully produced several RecyclableBlades in their main plant in Aalborg, Denmark.
The implementation of the RecyclableBlade in wind energy projects across the globe could have long-lasting positive impacts. According to Siemens Gamesa, the use of their innovative product could result in more than 200,000 blades being recycled instead of ending up in landfill by 2050; meaning more than 10,000,000 tons of recyclable material.
Average wind turbine blades are made with glass and carbon fiber, a core material that resembles wood or polyethylene terephthalate foam (PET), and a resin system. After that resin has set, all the components are binded together. However, because all the components are now set, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the resin from the rest of the materials. RecyclableBlade, however, uses a new, different type of resin that makes the separation process possible after its useful lifespan, allowing the materials to be recycled and used for other purposes. The process of recycling the wind blades is clearly explained in the company’s website:
- Decommissioning after end of life: The blades will be dismantled from the turbine and prepared for the recycling process.
- Immerse in mild acidic solution: The blade will be immersed into a heated mild acidic solution, which will separate the resin from the fiberglass, plastic, wood and metals.
- Reclaim separated components: The separated materials can then be recovered from the solution and prepared for secondary use ie. rinsing, drying.
- Re-use: The materials are now ready to be used in new products matching the technical properties of the materials, ie. in the automotive industry, or in consumer goods like flight cases and flatscreen casings.
Siemens Gamesa is right on track to further developing and installing their RecyclableBlades, already having signed agreements with three major customers: the German RWE, France-based EDF Renewables, and Germany’s very own WPD.
With RWE, Siemens Gamesa is working to install their innovative blades at the Kaskasi offshore wind power plant in Germany. RWE CEO Sven Utermöhlen said, “we are pleased that our offshore wind farm Kaskasi is able to provide a fantastic facility for testing innovations…this is a significant step in advancing the sustainability of wind turbines to the next level”.
With EDF Renewables, Siemens Gamesa is working to implement their product in future offshore projects. Bruno Bensasson, EDF Renewables CEO, said: “EDF Renewables’ team is fully mobilized to develop this pioneer technology with its suppliers with the aim to continuously improve the environmental sustainability of our projects.”
The agreement with WPD is to to install several RecyclableBlade at one of their future offshore wind power Plants. “Through this cooperation in the recycling technology program of Siemens Gamesa, we’re making another step forward for the industry, which makes us enthusiastic regarding sustainability of the supply chain in the future,” said Achim Berge Olsen, CEO of WPD Offshore.
As more and more well-intentioned companies are producing and installing wind energy technologies, it’s becoming increasingly important as well to make these technologies as sustainable and recyclable as possible to fully achieve a greener future.
“In pioneering wind circularity – where elements contribute to a circular economy of the wind industry – we have reached a major milestone in a society that puts care for the environment at its heart.”
– Andreas Nauen, Siemens Gamesa CEO