What to do with decommissioned wind turbines

What do we do with the next generation of renewable energy waste problems?
24 October 2022

Interview with 

Carla De Laurentis, University of the West of England


As we are all now well aware, renewable energy has to be the main source of any future economy’s firepower. As we make our transition to renewables, we have to plan for the structures that produce the energy to have several lives, so we don’t offset the good they do with excessive waste. One of the newly found challenges is what to do with decommissioned wind turbines. The average wind turbine’s lifespan is affected by many different things: its size, how often it gets used, and even the occasional lightning strike. With all that considered, the average lifespan is around 25 years. Currently, most turbine blades end up in landfill, and are set to account for 43 million tonnes of waste by 2050 unless we find a solution. Carla De Laurentis, lecturer in Environmental Management at the University of the West of England, spoke to Will Tingle about the problem…

Carla - There are different options. You can look at three main options. One is life extension. So you know, can you actually extend the design and technical life span? One could be repowering, either partial or a full repowering of your wind farm. And then the last one is decommissioning. Obviously all the three different ones will have some sort of element of decommissioning, because if you think about lifetime span, in order to extend the lifespan, you're gonna have to replace some elements of the wind turbines. So there is going to be some waste generated from life extension repowering. Again, if you're changing the size of the blades, if it's changing the height of it, so you're replacing the old winter turbines, you're gonna be left with some materials that need to be taken into consideration. In terms of what you can do. There are differences. I think one of the main issues that we need to try and avoid is that this waste material ends up in landfill. There is lots of interest from the wind industry to avoid that with 2025 being a year where they want to stop wind farms and the commissioning, waste reaching landfill. The options and opportunities I suppose are what we can do with those, with our waste material and with waste management. Can we look at the opportunities that the circular economy can offer to reuse, repurpose some of those materials? There are challenges, you know, the challenges are due to issues around the recycled recycling material in the market available for the cost that you pay for secondary material. They sometimes are in competition with primary resources, accessibility of the wine farm because obviously some of the sites are gonna be up in the hills,so logistically as well it's gonna be difficult to actually collect and manage that waste. But it is also an emergent market. So what can you do with those materials and those dismissed wind farms? One of the main challenges I suppose is if you look at the commissioning. I was quite interested to see that basically 85% to 90% of the materials of a wind farm can actually be recycled. And that is because I suppose quite a lot of the components are made of steel or concrete. If you think about the base in actual terms, there is no way that we are actually reaching those rates and one of the main challenges due to the blade and the way the material is composed of in the blade. Because it's mostly composite, which is much more complex. So there are different options that we can actually look at, especially if we start looking at circular economy and circular economy approaches to reusing them.

Will - I read something recently about the blades being used to prop up bridges. Now what is the realistic reuse of these blades?

Carla - There are a number of opportunities that can be explored. Some of them, as you mentioned, can be used for, or reused. We call it in circle economy terms is 'repurposing'. So we are using them by using them for a different purpose. They can be used for structure materials, so building bridges, but also we can use them for play parks, so you can look at different ways in which you can use the material. The problem is that, for instance one of the first play parks being constructed in Rotterdam, you use five blades for a children's play park. You know, we are talking about this amount of waste increasing immensely in the next few years. So what can we do once the scale of the problem is gonna become more of a challenge. There are, for instance, we come to Cork Island again and the second, blade bridge is called the Blade Bridge being constructed. There is another one in Poland. Blades can also be used for garden furniture. So I think the possibilities could be endless. There are many, it's just trying to make sure that we move from those niche applications to bigger scales and scaling up those niche applications to become more the norm. And from the wind industry's interest, I think their interest is actually to extend the life of the wind farm. So, that would be the preferred option, but also to look at opportunities for repurposing because those are the main areas of experimentation being looked at.


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