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Wind power is essential to achieving net zero in Australia, but as the industry grows and existing infrastructure starts to age, there is a need to further examine what can be done with wind turbines once they are ready to be retired.

Wind power is currently the biggest source of renewable energy in Australia, accounting for 36 per cent of all renewable energy in the grid. There are currently more than 300 wind farm projects in operation, under construction or planned in Australia, a number that is only likely to continue to increase. With the increased uptake of wind power comes the need for policy and regulation in the sector. Adapting to such a new and innovative means of producing energy takes time, and it can be difficult for government policy to keep up with such expedited uptake.

One of the areas that is still relatively unexplored in the industry is the decommissioning of wind farms. In 2023, the Clean Energy Council (CEC) released a report titled Winding up: decommissioning, recycling and resource recovery of Australian wind turbines. The report looked at different options for what to do with end of life wind infrastructure, finding that in the vast majority of cases, reuse and/or recycling was possible and the preferred way to manage decommissioning.

The CEC said, “The Australian wind farm industry takes decommissioning very seriously. No wind farm owner has ever abandoned a wind farm in Australia and the industry does not intend to ever allow this to happen. It is important to emphasise that abandonment of wind farms is not the Australian experience, and that there are no examples in Australia.”

Part of the reason that there are no examples of this happening in Australia is that there are strict requirements for decommissioning planning involved in wind farm planning. Prior to a wind farm being approved to proceed to construction, the project manager must submit detailed plans pertaining to every aspect of the project, including decommissioning proposals. 

The decommissioning process

Decommissioning a wind farm is almost as daunting a task as installation. According to the CEC, “A wind farm is expected to have an operational life of approximately 20 to 30 years. After this time, the project owner will either decommission the site, restoring the area to its previous land use, or negotiate with landowners to upgrade the equipment and extend the wind farm’s operational lifespan. 

“Decommissioning means that the wind turbines, site office and any other above ground infrastructure are removed from the site, and roads and foundation pads are covered and revegetated to return the ground to its former state. Sometimes parts of the wind farm that continue to serve a functional purpose may be left behind, such as powerlines and other regular electricity infrastructure.”

Generally, repowering a site with new and updated infrastructure is seen as the preferred path when decommissioning an existing wind farm. But whether the entire site is decommissioned or an upgrade is negotiated, what to do with the physical components of wind turbines remains the biggest question. Many valuable metals and other materials can be found in turbine parts that can be reused and recycled, but other components are not so easy. Blades in particular are a sticking point for recycling, as they are usually made of polymers and fibres that are harder to recycle. However, reuse is still very possible, even if it takes some out-of-the-box problem-solving to do so.

Case study: Ten Mile Lagoon

Many of Australia’s earliest wind farms have already been successfully decommissioned. One such wind farm was Synergy’s Ten Mile Lagoon project. The original project saw nine turbines installed at Ten Mile Lagoon in 1993, with another six turbines added at nearby Nine Mile Beach in 2004.

Decommissioning of the sites began in 2022. By this time, the sites had been inactive for several years as they were no longer required in the state’s energy grid. As such, repowering of sites was not possible, meaning that the entirety of both sites needed to be decommissioned and removed. The wind turbines, site offices and other infrastructure were removed from the site and repurposed. Revegetation was then undertaken.

Despite the age and inactivity of the turbines and other infrastructure, uses were found for almost all of the equipment. Two wind turbines were donated to a local TAFE campus for students studying clean energy, with another six repurposed at new wind farm sites. Internal road bases and tower concrete foundations will also be donated to the Shire of Esperance for reuse in the Goldfields-Esperance region, with project completion expected in 2024.

Synergy Executive General Manager, Thermal Generation, Angie Young, said, “Ten Mile Lagoon and Nine Mile Beach wind farms are no longer required and have been inactive for a number of years. Sustainability is a core focus at Synergy and we are committed to ensuring the site’s infrastructure will be reused and repurposed. We’re excited to be able to support our future workforce by donating some of the turbines to North Metropolitan TAFE, furthering renewable energy education in Western Australia.”

North Metropolitan TAFE Managing Director, Michelle Hoad, welcomed the donation of the two wind turbines to its Midland campus, which is set to become home to Western Australia’s first Clean Energy Training Centre.

“This donation will give students the opportunity to work on real industry infrastructure to gain the skills they need to enter the clean energy workforce. It is integral to North Metropolitan TAFE’s mission to skill Western Australians for a clean energy future,” Ms Hoad said.

Lessons from solar

Other renewable energy sectors are facing similar challenges, as renewable energy infrastructure becomes more prolific and older models start to become outdated. A report from the Australian Centre of Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP), Scoping study: Solar Panel End-of-Life Management in Australia, recommended a raft of measures for solar panel photovoltaic (PV) recycling, including the establishment of waste facilities in five Australian cities by 2027. The report found that the projected cumulative volume of decommissioned solar panels is likely to reach one million tonnes by 2035.

Solar panels have a lifespan of approximately 20 years. Although they are made up of many components that are easily recyclable and readily reused, Australia’s current infrastructure limits recycling capabilities so that only about 17 per cent of a solar panel by weight is recyclable. Sustainability Victoria said, “To manage the life cycle of solar infrastructure in Australia, a national framework of shared responsibility is being explored. Different governments are using product stewardship as a way of assessing and putting into action a management system.”

Currently, the laws regarding disposal of solar panels differ from state to state. In Victoria, solar panels fall under the category of e-waste, which is banned from entering landfill. South Australia, Queensland and the ACT have also banned solar panels from entering landfill. Solar panels must be taken to a lawful place, which can be a place with permission to sort, store or recover waste, or a place licenced for e-waste processing. It is an indictable offence not to take waste to a place authorised to receive it. New South Wales treats solar panels as e-waste, however, they are not banned from entering landfill. Western Australia is expected to enact a ban on solar panels entering landfill in 2024.

However, looking internationally, we can see that better recycling practices are certainly possible. In the European Union, regulations require 85 per cent collection and 80 per cent recycling of the materials used in PV panels under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). Also within the European Union, non-profit solar panel recycling body PV Cycle collected 5,000t of solar PBV panels in France, of which 94.7 per cent was able to be recycled. Clearly, the possibilities exist – we just need the infrastructure and policy to implement them. 

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