Why it is difficult to dispose of used wind turbines

    30 Jun 2021

    Turbines from the first great 1990s wave of wind power are reaching the end of their life expectancy today. About two gigawatts worth of turbines were refitted in 2019 and 2020. And disposing of them in an environmentally-friendly way is a growing problem, BBC states.

    Some call wind turbines a stunning element of environmentally friendly technology. Others consider them too loud, too cumbersome, or dangerous for biodiversity. But one thing is for sure. Wind energy is facing difficulties in Europe. One of the urgent problems is the problem with turbine blades, which are difficult to dispose of, Euronews reports.

    Due to the renewal of capacity by 2030 in Europe will have to decommission up to 5,700 turbines.

    Residents of the city of Lunas in southern France are demanding the dismantling of 7 turbines of the Bernaghi wind farm. They have been fighting for this for years, and the trial is still ongoing.

    “We are not against wind energy. We oppose the installation of turbines in places with rich biodiversity. In the Occitania region, this is 70% of the territory, ”said Marion Vale, one of a group of residents protesting at the entrance to the Bernaghi wind farm.

    In the near future, a huge number of wind turbines will be dismantled in Europe, and not only because of complaints from the local population.

    First-generation wind turbines are becoming obsolete and need to be replaced with more modern and efficient ones. This process, called power upgrades, has begun at different rates across Europe.

    “Their capacity will be doubled – from 2 megawatts to 4.2 megawatts per wind turbine. We will triple the electricity produced by more than 9,000 kilowatt-hours, which will supply almost 5,800 families,” said Elizabeth Calenza, renewable energy manager at Engie Belgium.

    Due to the renewal of capacity by 2030 in Europe, it may be necessary to decommission up to 5,700 wind turbines. Today, you can dispose of almost everything in the wind turbine, up to 90%. The problem is in the blades. They are made of composite materials designed for long-term use, not for recycling.

    The length of one wind blade is about 40 meters, it weighs 7 tons and is a 10% wind turbine that is difficult to dispose of. This 10% has caused controversy around the world over the sustainability of this renewable energy.

    So what happens to the blades today? Most of them are reusable. But the number of decommissioned blades in 5-10 years will be so large that you have to change the whole system.

    “Currently, about 80% of all dismantled wind turbines are reused elsewhere. Mainly in Europe: Italy, Great Britain, Sweden, Denmark. But the other 20% are recycled. Since using them again from an economic point of view is impractical. But in the near future, I think in two years, about 80% will have to be disposed of, because there is less space left for used turbines, and new larger turbines are much more competitive,” said Wim Robbertesen, managing director of Business in the wind.

    Today, those shovels that are not reused or incinerated end up in landfills. This picture was taken in the United States and has become a symbol of one of the dark sides of renewable energy around the world.

    Only four European countries have banned such “turbine cemeteries”: Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Finland. Europe has called for a nationwide ban on such landfills by 2025.

    “We do not want these shovels to end up in landfills. The blades are generally non-toxic and technically safe for burial. But throwing them in a landfill is a waste of valuable resources, and this is incompatible with the environmental aspirations of the wind industry,” said Giles Dixon, CEO of WindEurope.

    Today, the number of companies capable of disposing of wind turbines in Europe is one. Technologies are not yet sufficiently developed and are not available on an industrial scale. The Spanish startup receives shovels from France, Portugal and North Africa. They claim that they will soon be able to process 1,500 blades a year.

    The wind industry believes that the call for a landfill ban across the European Union will accelerate the expansion of recycling technologies, but also accelerate the growth of demand for recycled materials.

    Efforts are aimed at increasing sustainability throughout the value chain from design to production. As does the Danish wind energy giant Vestas. The ultimate goal is to make the blade 100% recyclable.

    “Today, our blades are recyclable by 42-43%. We have something to strive for. But if you ask when we will reach this 100%, I think it will take some time, “said Lisa Extrand, Head of Sustainability at Vestas.

    Bigger always better?

    Modern turbines bring along their own challenges, including what to do with them when they are no longer needed.

    Bigger blades “need bigger factories, bigger vessels, cables, foundations, and handling equipment,” says Ray Thompson, global business development head at Spanish-headquartered Siemens Gamesa, one of the world’s two largest wind turbine makers.

    Longer blades can make for bigger recycling headaches, too.

    The composite fibreglass in blades is “the most difficult, and the most expensive part” of turbines to recycle, Mr. Kragelund says. And there’s more of it.

    There’s some reselling of second-hand turbine components from Europe to the Middle East and Asia pacific, he says. Big data, leading to better maintenance regimes and more reliable components could also mean today’s blades might last longer, says Siemens’s Mr Thompson.

    Recycling has made more progress so far in the onshore than offshore industry, which is newer, he adds.

    But while “there is work being done to find ways to recycle materials from old turbines,” it “would be nice to see more design input now, so that’s easier in the future,” says Prof Cochrane.

    Meanwhile, according to the study, two-thirds of renewable energy is already cheaper than fossil fuels.

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