According to estimates, about 14,000 turbine blades in Europe will be decommissioned by 2023. Neglecting the utilization of the used parts may be very costly and not much time is left. The plan to reconstruct the EU economy could include investments in recycling renewable energy sources, including wind turbine blades – Patrycja Rapacka, editor at BiznesAlert.pl, writes.
When thinking about what happens to used turbines and their blades, the picture that often comes to mind is the landfill in Casper, Wyoming, where hundreds of decommissioned blades end up. It may take hundreds of years for the blades, which are left in designated dumps, to decompose. Recently used wind blades captured the media’s attention. That’s a good thing. Europe’s energy transition is based on renewable energy sources (RES), which have been developed on the continent for years now. In 2019 wind energy generated about 15% of power in the European Union. The bloc also decided to increase the participation of renewables in energy production to 32% by 2030. Wind energy will play a significant role in the energy mix by 2050. Today the decision makers and the sector talk a lot about new RES installations and future investments, but are not very outspoken about the utilization of waste from these sources. Apart from setting RES goals, it is pertinent to determine what should be done with the blades that in a few years will be unsuitable to use. Recycling is the answer, as it will make it possible to reuse the secondary raw materials, and thus limit the need to acquire new ones. The wind industry and interviewers of BiznesAlert.pl from the RES sector claim that the recycling of wind blades is currently one of the main topics of discussions on the future of wind energy.
Recycling technologies already exist, but they’re expensive
According to WindEurope, an association for the promotion of wind energy, 85-90% of the turbine’s weight can be recycled. However, the blades are a challenge because they are produced from composite materials, as they are lighter and more resistant to high overloads. Currently, the wind sector across the world uses 2.5 million tons of composite material. The 14,000 blades that will be decommissioned by 2023 are composed of 40-60 thousand tons of the composite material. Recently, WindEurope together with the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) and the Association of the European Composites Industry (EUCIA) presented a report where they proposed recommendations on how the industry should develop the recycling process for wind blades. The paper clearly stated that those technologies were available, but at this point were not economically viable. Anna Adamcio from Anmet explained in an interview with BiznesAlert that the main way to recycle the blades is to use mechanical grinding, but this process requires a lot of energy, which increases the overall costs.
Today various recycling technologies to handle decommissioned wind blades are tested. Some have already been fully implemented and are offered by recycling companies. Currently the main technology for recycling composite materials is cement co-processing. Other technologies are also being verified, including gasification (fluidized bed), solvolysis, pulse fragmentation, pyrolysis, and mechanical grinding. WindEurope promotes cement co-processing.
The recycling technologies are also researched by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials. As part of the project „Rohstoffwende Bayern”, the Institute, together with Roth International, designed innovative composite recycling methods and is now offering its services in Germany. Veolia Deutschland also offers a variety of waste treatment methods for the wind industry. The company also designed its own method of recycling turbine blades. Global Fibreglass Solutions from the US is also researching recycling solutions. It provides recycling services for fiber glass waste to various industries including wind energy. The company is also present in Germany.
In Poland a company called Anmet handles blade waste. It uses the recycled material to construct bridges and parts of the so-called small architecture – benches, seats, armchairs, lamps, etc. The company also cooperates with a few higher education schools in the country, mostly technical ones. Anment wants to use its research to be able to recycle every type of blades. Thornmann Recycling also operates in Poland. It has been recycling composites for a decade now, including blades made of carbon fiber and glass fiber. It recycles old and broken wind blades that were damaged during hurricanes, or which have microcracks in their structure. For three years now the company has been a member of a composite cluster in Germany. It does not reveal its recycling methods or details about its processes. In an interview with BiznesAlert.pl, Piotr Widuch, CEO of Thornmann Recycling, revealed that the company wanted to process about 8,000 pieces of composite waste a year in a factory that will be built near Warsaw.
The law and blade recycling
Does the Polish law in any way regulate the recycling of wind blades or other parts of wind turbines? Jan Sakaławski, counsellor and partner at Brysiewicz and Associates legal firm, answered this question for us. He stressed that according to various estimates it is possible to recycle 80-90% of a wind turbine. “We should remember that one wind turbine is composed of a foundation, a steel tower, technical parts in the nacelle, a rotor hub and blades. Of course, the blades are the most difficult parts to reuse, because they were designed in a way that prevents accidental damage. This means they are made of polymers that are reinforced with fiber glass, which makes it a lot harder to recycle using, e.g. pyrolysis,” the lawyer clarified. He also pointed to the fact that so far the Act on waste has not designated blades as a particular type of waste. “According to the regulation of the Minister of Climate on the register of waste, blades could be classified as plastic waste or fiber glass waste, depending which material dominates. At the same time, e.g. in Germany blades are classified as dangerous waste, which means they cannot be left at a landfill,” the counsellor explained to BiznesAlert.pl. Dumping this kind of waste is also banned in Austria, Finland and Holland. France wants to introduce a recycling target for wind turbines by 2020.
The European Commission has acknowledged the challenge posed by wind turbine blade recycling as well. In May in response to questions from Members of the European Parliament, the EC stated that in the current legal state it was the member states that needed to handle this kind of waste in line with the hierarchy of managing waste as stipulated in the Directive 2008/98/EC. Still, the EC also admitted that it was closely looking at the issue and, among others, had already supported projects to combat this problem, for instance the Horizon 2020 program,” Sakławski explained. He also stressed that in this context it would be difficult to avoid drafting detailed regulations for this kind of waste in the near future. “We should hope that by then the technologies that enable recycling or disposal of wind blades without harming the environment will have been introduced to the market and made commercially available,” he explains.
Is the Polish wind sector ready to recycle blades?
Is Poland developing blade recycling technologies as well? The Polish Wind Energy Association (PWEA) replies. Magdalena Klera-Nowopolska, head of the Environment and Investment Department at the Association explained in a commentary for BiznesAlert.pl that Poland had a relatively modern machine park, so a large-scale dismantling of wind farms was a distant future for our market. “Such processes will begin in the next few years when the turbines that have been working the longest will need to be modernized by, e.g. replacing the blades (reblading) or replacing them and increasing the turbine’s capacity (repowering). The scope of the regulations in Poland is very similar to the solutions successfully used in other European countries. The Act on investments in wind power pants from 20 May 2016 forces the investor to hand over the property that was leased for years to its owner in a condition that is not worse than before the investment had begun,” PWEA’S expert explained.
Klera-Nowopolska also stressed that modern wind power plants can be almost entirely repurposed. “It is possible to recover up to 90 percent of the entire weight of the parts used to construct a turbine. What is more, recovering the raw materials is increasingly more often cost neutral, which means the costs of dismantling and utilization are covered by the profits from selling the secondary raw materials. The only part that cannot be fully repurposed are the rotor’s blades and parts of the nacelle made mostly of thermosetting resins combined with carbon fibers, the so-called GRP. The wind energy community acknowledges the challenges related to the expected GRP supply increase,” the expert stated.
Out interviewer also stressed that in order to make sure the blade’s lifetime was as long as possible it should be properly taken care of from the moment the turbine starts working. A good technical condition of the blades guarantees uninterrupted generation, whereas regular check-ups and servicing help to avoid the high costs of replacing them. “Today the disposal of composite materials from blades is possible thanks to a variety of technologies, such as pirolysis, mechanical processing with repurposing (e.g. mixtures with concrete), as well as combustion (often involves recovering energy). The second method is the most popular because of the costs and the broad use of such mixtures in construction. Additionally, in the country we have a very robust commercial market where services are offered by companies that specialize in recycling composite materials, whereas Polish technological solutions – designed by leading academic centers, e.g. pirolysis, are often used across the world. The manufacturers of appliances are actively engaged in numerous international research projects whose goal is to design other recycling technologies and composite materials repurposing methods that can be introduced into the market. It should be stressed that even though the role of supply of this type of waste from wind blades in European countries will be growing, the participation of composites in their total production is still relatively small,” the Association’s representative explained. According to the Association, the market of composites generated by the wind energy sector will constitute only 10 percent of the European composite market by 2025. The highest amount of waste is produced by the following sectors: air, marine and road transport and construction.
“The commercial introduction and cost efficiency of new composite processing technologies in the coming years requires a stable and predictable supply of the raw material, which today is insufficient in the wind sector. This is why all industries that use these materials need to cooperate to develop more efficient recycling and usage practices,” Magdalena Klera-Nowopolska explained.
A new specialization
The development of recycling in the renewables sector could be included in the EU’s coronavirus recovery plan. In order to take care of the environment we have to facilitate the circular economy. The wind industry is also calling for this. “Investing in green energy generation and solutions for the circular economy should be one of the key factors that will contribute to the economic recovery after the coronavirus,” Marco Mensink, Director General at CEFIC, argues. Experts also indicate that to develop wind blade recycling, alliances between various industries are necessary and so is the need to design new wind energy value chains, which will use the potential of the companies that are already working in this area. The recycling of renewables, i.e. the recycling of composites, could become Europe’s new technological advantage. It requires logistics, technology, disassembly, collection, waste management and reintegration of the value chain. The European Union should invest not only in research and innovation that will develop this industry, but also in new materials that could be used to produce wind blades and other parts of power plants with better benefits for the environment.