With a life span of 25 years what is to be done with decommissioned turbine blades?

There is no clear strategy of what to do with decommissioned windfarm turbine blades that are set for scrapping. At the moment one environmentally disastrous option is landfill, and industry body WindEurope has recently called for a Europe-wide landfill ban on decommissioned wind turbine blades by 2025. Europe’s wind industry actively commits to re-use, recycle, or recover 100% of decommissioned blades. This comes after several industry-leading companies announced ambitious plans for blade recycling and recovery. A landfill ban would further accelerate the development of sustainable recycling technologies for composite materials, says WindEurope.

At the Spanish Wind Energy Association (AEE)’s Annual Congress Giles Dickson, CEO of WindEurope, and Juan Virgilio Márquez, General Director of AEE, called upon the European Commission to propose a Europe-wide ban on landfilling decommissioned wind turbine blades. The ban should enter into force by 2025 and also apply to other large composite components in the nacelles of modern wind turbines.

Today the standard lifetime of an onshore wind farm is around 20-25 years. 85-90% of the total mass of a wind turbine can already be recycled. Most of the components – including steel, cement, copper wire, electronics and gearing – have established recycling circles. However, wind turbine blades are more challenging to recycle. They contain complex composite materials – a combination of reinforced fibres (usually glass or carbon fibres) and a polymer matrix. These composites boost the performance of wind turbines. They allow for lighter and longer blades with optimised aerodynamics. But their configuration also poses challenges for recycling.

Such composites are not only used in wind turbine blades. They are important materials in sectors such as aviation, automotives, marine transport, aeronautics, leisure and sports equipment, construction and building.

There are some technologies available to recycle the composite materials in blades, and an increasing number of companies offer composite recycling services, but these solutions are not yet mature enough, widely available at industrial scale and/or cost-competitive. Making these technologies commercially viable will require commitment from policy makers, other composite users and the recycling industry.

WindEurope expects around 25,000 tonnes of blades to reach the end of their operational life annually by 2025. Germany and Spain will see the highest number of decommissioned blades, followed by Denmark. Towards the end of the decade Italy, France and Portugal will also start to significantly decommission blades and the annual decommissioned volume could double to 52,000 tonnes by 2030.

Governments can play a decisive role in driving the circularity of wind turbine blades. They should increase funding on Research and Development (R+D) in the commercialisation and scale up of different blade recycling technologies. These include mechanical grinding, pyrolysis, microwave pyrolysis, high-voltage pulse fragmentation, solvolysis and fluidised bed. The EU should also provide R+D funding to foster the development and use of new circular blade materials.

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