Tens of thousands of wind turbine blades will end up in landfill by 2030 unless recycling programs are quickly put in place, according to research from the University of South Australia.
Led by Professor Peter Majewski, the study lays bare the challenges of recycling wind turbine blades, which have an average lifespan of around 25 years and whose current construction from carbon fiber composite materials or fiberglass makes them expensive to break down, along with leftover materials. with little market value.
“The same characteristics that make these blades cost-effective and reliable for use in commercial wind turbines make them very difficult to recycle profitably,” Majewski said in a statement Thursday.
“As it is so expensive to recycle them and the materials recovered are worth so little, it is unrealistic to expect a market-based recycling solution to emerge, so policy makers need to step in now and plan ahead. what we are going to do with all these blades going offline in the next few years.”
With over 40 million tonnes of blade waste expected worldwide by 2050, alternatives to landfill are urgently needed, and while in Europe blades have been repurposed to be used for playgrounds, street furniture, cycle shelters and walkways, points out the Clean Energy Council of Australia this can only play a minor role over time in reducing the need for blade recycling solutions.
Producer responsibility and formal regulatory frameworks
Majewski said the cost of sustainably disposing of the blades will likely need to be factored into the cost of making them or, alternatively, the cost of running them.
“So, building on the experience of similar programs for other products, either the manufacturer must take responsibility for what to do with end-of-life blades, or wind farm operators must provide end-of-life solutions as part of their business planning approval process,” he said.
Majewski pointed out that in addition to self-regulation, the long lifespan and high cost of blades means official frameworks are needed to transition responsibilities.
“If manufacturers disappear or wind farms go bankrupt, we need to make sure the processes are still in place to ensure turbine blades are disposed of properly,” he said.
While consumers are likely to bear some of the end-of-life cost via energy tariffs, Majewski believes market competition among energy producers will minimize this impact.
“It will have a cost for everyone involved, but we have to accept that as part of the cost of producing energy in this way,” he said.
“Without such solutions, energy options like wind and solar may not be more sustainable than the older technologies they aim to replace.”
The first recyclable wind turbine blades developed in Denmark
In September 2021, the renewable energy company Siemens Gamesa have developed what they call “the world’s first wind turbine blade that can be recycled at the end of its life cycle”.
The new blades, developed at the company’s Danish factory, are constructed from a combination of materials cast together using resin, resulting in a lightweight, strong and flexible structure.
The chemical structure of this particular resin means that it can be effectively separated from other components of the blade at the end of its life, and this process protects the material properties of the blade, which is not feasible in recycling. conventional blades. The decomposition materials can then be reused in other applications.
Siemens Gamesa says offshore customers will now have the option to choose these new recyclable blades for their future projects.