Sustainability In-Tech : Are Wind Turbines Really All That Green?

A study by the University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute has revealed that no plan for the recycling of end-of-life wind turbines has meant that they are causing a waste problem that looks set to get worse.

What’s The Problem?

There are several key issues at the root of the end-of-life wind turbine waste problem. These are:

– Although 85 per cent of a wind turbine is already recyclable, the materials used in wind turbine blades are notoriously difficult to recycle. For example, only 30 per cent of the fibre-reinforced plastic material commonly used in wind turbine blades can currently be reused to form new composite materials, with most ending up in the cement industry (a large CO2 producer anyway) as filler material or incinerated in cement factories as part of the cement-making process. Although substituting coal, sand, and clay with the blade materials has been reported to bring a 27 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions when making cement, this is still not an ideal green solution.

– The cost of recycling the blades and the low market value of recovered materials are not providing the motivation to develop a recycling solution.

– There is currently no clear recycling plan for old wind turbines, and no legislation for their end-of-life management.

– Wind turbine production is increasing and yet the turbines only have a 25–30-year lifetime, both of which mean there’s an increasing pile of wind turbine blades needing to be disassembled with no clear plan for doing so. Estimates say there could be as many as 14,000 waste wind turbine blades in Europe by 2023.

– Although there are some projects that use discarded wind turbines, they don’t represent a real commitment to circular design and critical end-of-life planning.

– It is not currently clear whether the responsibility for recycling of wind turbine parts rests with the manufacturer or the operator.

– Some wind turbines also face security risks because they still run on Windows 2000, the security updates for which ended in 2010!

Many Go To Landfill 

As things stand, in addition to turbine blades being used in cement, many other wind turbine parts simply end up in landfill.

Some Ideas 

Some businesses are already creating innovative, circular, zero-waste solutions for the re-use of wind turbine blades. For example:

– US company Global Financial Solutions makes manufacturing-grade fibres, pellets, construction materials, panels, and other related products from the wind turbine blades.

– German company Wings for Living creates outdoor furniture and artwork from the old wind turbine blades.

What Does This Mean To Your Organisation? 

As the UniSA Future Industries Institute report suggests, even though legislation which could be used for the regulative framework for the end-of-life management of wind turbine blades already exists, it is not being used effectively for this. Ideally, policy makers and all involved stakeholders need to find a way in the very near future to work together to produce regulations that actually address the management of waste coming from wind turbine blades. Wind turbine production is increasing, as is the waste problem and a potential PR disaster for the industry looks more likely the longer there is no definite recycling plan with clear responsibilities in place. It is in everyone’s interest that regulations are developed sooner rather than later.

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