Dr Anne Velenturf (Research Impact Fellow in Circular Economy and Offshore Wind at the University of Leeds) explores the findings of a recent workshop discussing new “circular” business opportunities in offshore wind.
The University of Leeds is running the project A Sustainable Circular Economy for Offshore Wind, which is co-funded by EPSRC, the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult and the Department for International Trade. The project aims to start integrating circular economy practices into the design, operation and end-of-use management of offshore wind infrastructure. Dr Anne Velenturf (Research Impact Fellow in Circular Economy and Offshore Wind at the University of Leeds) explores the findings of a recent workshop discussing new “circular” business opportunities in offshore wind.
In January 2021, over a hundred experts from industry, government and research and innovation bodies across the offshore wind, removal, and waste and resources sectors came together at a workshop to discuss new “circular” business opportunities in offshore wind. The workshop offered insight into the drivers and barriers for circular economy practices, and highlighted the need for more capacity building before the offshore wind industry can capitalise on the many opportunities that a circular economy has to offer.
Benefits of circular economy for offshore wind sector
Circular economy can generate significant benefits to the offshore wind industry, such as a further reduction of carbon emissions and opening new business opportunities that could create 20,000 extra jobs by 2032. Offshore wind could expand into new supply chains and markets, such as second hand components and remanufacturing. At end-of-use, circular economy can also reduce decommissioning risk, an important aspect given that costs could be 4-10 times higher than anticipated. Moreover, reducing resource use, designing components for durability and increasing recycling are critical for sustainable resource supplies that can sustain the industry’s ambitions to grow offshore wind three-fourfold by 2030.
Circular economy strategies for offshore wind
Circular economy can be implemented through a plethora of strategies. The figure below shows that most circular economy strategies have so far remained under-investigated within academia. A major exception is repair and maintenance, where research activity is very high. Offshore wind decommissioning is a growing research area. There are limited research efforts on recycling, reuse and repurpose, refurbish and remanufacture, lifetime extension, repowering and modularisation. All the other strategies – circular design, dematerialisation, waste prevention, disassembly, recertification, energy recovery, landfill and re-mining, site restoration – are virtually non-investigated yet. The workshop broadly confirmed that this picture also transpires to the current practice in offshore wind industry as well.
Where next to enable greater circularity in offshore wind
Overall it can be concluded that offshore wind research and practice are still at the beginning of integrating circular economy practices into the whole lifecycle management of wind farms and turbine components and materials. Six important next steps were identified:
- Communications to explain what a circular economy is and which strategies can be used in the offshore wind industry
Interest in circular economy is growing in offshore wind, but more explanation of circular economy concepts and strategies are in demand. This is a necessary step before circular solutions can be co-produced with the offshore wind industry. The resources sector – as circular economy experts – can play a role to support the offshore wind industry in developing circular economy expertise and skills, from designers to technicians and boardrooms.
- Facilitate cross-sectoral learning including the transfer of best practice as well as learning from past mistakes
There’s nothing like learning from examples, and offshore wind could learn from best practice in, for example, onshore wind, aerospace and automotive. Oil and gas could offer a more critical example, as circular economy performance is low in this sector. The resources sector could support the coordination of cross-sectoral learning and integration into offshore wind.
- Support research and innovation to solve current issues, and to design better systems that prevent sustainability challenges arising from the installation of new wind turbines
It was argued that attention ought to go to research and innovation on circular design, disassembly and reverse logistics, remanufacturing, certification of second hand parts and recyclates. Cable recovery and recycling – as well as glass fibre composite blades – are particularly challenging. Better regulation needs to be coupled with more innovation support and investment in the supply chain.
- Evidence on the environmental, social, technical and economic costs and benefits of circular economy strategies for stakeholders involved throughout the lifecycle of a wind farm
Decisions for the uptake of more circular practices – in the offshore wind industry, for governance changes, and in research and innovation investments – all depend on evidence of the multi-dimensional costs and benefits throughout wind farm lifecycles. This evidence base is generally lacking. First steps in developing the evidence base for near-future circular solutions, that mainly rely on component reuse and material recycling, can be co-produced with the resources sector e.g. in terms of identifying end-markets for parts and recyclates.
- Clarify the roles and responsibilities of various stakeholders in the uptake of circular economy practices
Another essential aspect for making business cases is clarity on “problem ownership”. Who’s role and responsibility is it to take action on circular economy related challenges and opportunities? Ownership structures and (legal) responsibilities throughout wind farm lifecycles are notoriously fuzzy. It is hence essential to facilitate clarification conversations with industry and government regarding the current roles and responsibilities and how they may change with the uptake of circular economy strategies.
- Coproduction of regulatory ambitions and boundaries to support the most sustainable circular economy strategies
The application of existing policy and regulation must be clarified as a matter of urgency. The waste hierarchy is not appropriately applied. The resources sector could support the offshore wind industry in proactively applying the waste hierarchy at the wind farm design and development stage. For current turbines in the water that are reaching end-of-use, the waste hierarchy must be enforced and this requires changes in industry practice as well as government decommissioning guidance.
Further clarifications are required regarding extended and/or individual producer responsibility and the definition of waste. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) hold key information on the design and material usage in components and these data can unlock potential disassembly for parts reuse and material recycling. Either OEMs should be made responsible for the end-of-use management of their manufactured parts or, when they do not foresee developing end-of-use activities, data sharing should be mandated via regulation to enable other companies to fulfil this important role. Finally, more ambitious targets in terms of decarbonising the whole offshore wind supply chain and carbon pricing of raw materials can support circular economy uptake in offshore wind.
The full workshop results can be found on the website of the Resource Recovery from Waste programme. Reflections on industry, government and research readiness for a circular economy for critical raw materials used in offshore wind were published this week in the journal OneEarth.
Please feel free to contact Dr Anne Velenturf, Research Impact Fellow in Circular Economy and Offshore Wind at the University of Leeds with any questions and comments at A.Velenturf@leeds.ac.uk.