Materials consultant at Bax & Company Johanna Reiland explores the challenges posed by wind turbine waste and what potential sustainable solutions look like.
As an emerging, much-hyped concept, the practical meaning and implications of the circular economy can be difficult to grasp. To stop value chain stakeholders and public authorities from going around in circles, Bax & Company’s Life After Linear series breaks down a clear, circular story for some of the most important material value chains of Europe’s low-carbon future.
In the latest edition in the series, I investigate the problem posed by wind turbine waste and addresses the challenges and solutions to bring regenerative practices to this important renewable energy source.
An unsustainable approach to sustainability
Wind energy is a crucial enabler for a future with high living standards within planetary boundaries. International treaties by the United Nations (UN) have repeatedly stressed the importance of this energy source in the fight against the climate crisis.
These treaties, as well as the current energy crisis, have led more and more nations across the globe to rethink their energy policies and strategies. Furthermore, the war in Ukraine has shed light on the fact that energy and security policies are inextricably linked.
With a “life expectancy” of 20 to 25 years, wind installations see a regular turnover of materials and resources. In light of the boom in the sector, the demand for (advanced) materials including critical raw materials is only expected to rise, even in higher efficiency scenarios.
While much of these materials can be recycled (although not consistently done), once the wind turbine installation is decommissioned, the key elements of the rotor – the wind turbine blades – are challenging to recycle. Today, the majority of blades are being sent to landfill.
More than 40 million tonnes of waste from wind turbine blades will be accumulated across landfills by 2050.
More than 40 million tonnes of waste from wind turbine blades will be accumulated across landfills by 2050. It is abundantly clear that business as usual is no longer viable. The European wind sector widely acknowledges this. In fact, WindEurope – the Association of the European Wind Industry – has called on the European Commission to ban all landfilling of wind turbine blades by 2025.
The irony of the renewable energy sector is that the enabling technologies are currently highly dependent on primarily fossil resources. For wind turbines, this includes large amounts of concrete for the tower, and large amounts of silica sand and petroleum to produce the fibres and resins that form the composite materials for the lightweight blades that harness the wind.
Yet, the current industry practices of sending vast amounts of resources from manufacturing scrap and End-of-Life components to landfill not only creates a cycle of dependency in times where political instabilities or public health threats easily disrupt supply chains, but also perpetuates the extraction of finite materials. Per definition, those practices can’t present a valuable option for the sector’s long-term growth.
Beyond the environmental burden on ecosystems, biodiversity and the climate, the current practice of discarding this high-value material or placing downgraded recyclate in other industries is undoubtedly unsustainable from an economic perspective.
Circularity embedded in all parts of the value chain has the potential to maintain high-value materials in the sector, create new business – for example, through new business models – and create an industry that is regenerative in all its lifecycle steps.
Finding alternative material solutions and closing the material and energy cycle is not only a matter of environmental sustainability but of reducing the strong material dependency of the wind sector and thus externalities, consequently improving resilience in the long term.
The challenges of bringing circularity to wind energy
Wind turbine blades today are made primarily of composite materials with thermoset resins. Thermosets have excellent mechanical properties that allow for the construction of larger blades that can harvest more energy from wind – currently, the largest blade is longer than 120m. The very same properties though, make it impossible to reshape these blades into different applications at the end of their life.
While there are material choices that are more circular, reliant availability and the performance of such material streams is still very limited. Currently, recycled material quality is very much limited compared to that of virgin material, and bio-based material technologies for use in blades are still to be scaled.
There is a risk that the switch to bio-based materials as seen in many economic sectors, the related change in land use and the increase in global population, puts a lot of pressure on ecosystems and food supplies.
To date, there are hardly any standards related to materials in blades, let alone material passports. There is strong fear within the industry that it would limit competitiveness and, as such, innovation which may lead to missing out on important advancements towards higher yields and efficiency.
Yet, in order to drive circularity, the availability of data on materials and processes is required. Especially at the end of the first useful life, decisions for reuse, refurbishment, repair and/or recycling are challenging.
This leads to downcycling sound structures that could be used in high-value applications or reduced recyclate quality since recycling processes are not tailored to the available material. As a consequence, the quality-cost ratio remains at a competitive disadvantage compared to virgin material.
In order for circular practices and strategies to be effective across multiple life cycles, the actors involved in the circular solution have to be connected. Building a circular value chain requires alignment across hundreds of actors. Developing closer partnerships upstream and downstream, so that all stakeholders can better understand and meet their needs is a huge organisational challenge.
Addressing the circularity of wind turbine installations at their End-of-Life not only creates many technical issues but prevents us from achieving our circularity goals beyond recovery and recycling. Shifting the focus to the circular design of materials, components, and value chains can achieve positive environmental and social impacts and also presents economic opportunities.
Solutions to make this material stream circular stem from several disciplines, with the implementation being driven by different stakeholders.
From a technological perspective, the sector is in a position where recycling technologies are maturing and the focus must lay on upscaling to increase efficiency and achieve a cost reduction.
Developing or advancing new materials and processes is integral to driving circularity from an upstream perspective. Here, joint development agreements can reduce the time-to-market – a common risk – significantly.
Beyond that, driving the digitisation of the sector, particularly with respect to increasing the availability and transparency of information on materials and processes, is a key solution to pursue.
By introducing material passports and material class labelling as an industry-wide standard, the use of recyclate in the design of new structures is more probable.
Designing circularity into the DNA of the value chain with close collaboration across the entire supply chain and all lifecycle steps and multiple lifetimes will ensure the effectiveness of circular practices.
Forming partnerships for common value creation to reduce risks and opening the dialogue with other industries facing the same issues (e.g., the aerospace, shipbuilding, and automotive sectors) can advance the developments further.
Regulations on waste treatment and exports must be simplified in order to upscale recycling operations.
Higher gate fees for landfilling and incineration or even a general ban on this form of waste disposal would not only push the industry to increase its recycling capacity but also shift the responsibility back upstream to design and manufacture materials and components that are more circular in the first place.
An extension of the EU taxonomy or carbon pricing schemes would increase the cost-competitiveness of recycled materials over virgin ones.
How to tackle this topic
Bax & Company help stakeholders of the composite value chain to understand the underlying challenges and support them in:
Formulating the right strategies
Understanding the underlying specifications and mechanisms that prevent the circularity of the material stream is integral to developing an impactful circularity strategy.
Scouting the right technologies and practices
Technologies and practices that aim at increasing the circularity of composites exist in all lifecycle steps. But, they must be put in context with other practices to achieve whole system net benefits.
Identifying them and connecting them to the right partners
Collaboration upstream and downstream as well as across sectors is at the core of circularity. Ultimately the solutions to composite circularity will not be achieved by one stakeholder alone but by a strong network of stakeholders.