by Professor Peter Majewski, Future Industries Institute, University of South Australia

With 824GW of capacity and about 300,000 wind turbines installed worldwide, wind power is an essential element in the necessary decarbonisation of global electric power generation. Australia currently has a wind generation capacity of about 9GW, lower than nations like Germany, Spain, Netherlands, UK, USA, and the Scandinavian nations. However, it is predicted this number will significantly increase in Australia, particularly as the push for green hydrogen accelerates the uptake of wind power.

Wind turbine blades generally have a designed lifetime of about 20 years, so a significant number of blades will need to be decommissioned over the next two decades. For example, in Germany, one of the most advanced wind energy markets in the European Union, about 33 per cent of wind turbines, with a combined output of about 17GW, are older than 15 years.

Similar situations exist in other EU countries with significant wind energy markets, like Spain (57 per cent of turbines older than 15 years), Denmark (33 per cent), and Netherlands (21 per cent). It has been reported that in Europe alone, currently more than 3,800 wind turbine blades will have to be removed every year.

Overall, wind turbines have a good recyclability rate of 85 to 90 per cent, as components like the foundation, tower, parts of the gearbox and generator are recyclable and are already treated as such. However, recycling turbine blades is still a major challenge, as they are mainly made of glass fibre and carbon fibre composite materials which are difficult to recycle and of minimal value, with a lack of a market for the recirculated material.

Based on the current rate of uptake of wind power in Australia, about 10,000 tonnes of waste per year from wind turbine blades can be expected over the next few years, increasing to about 20,000 tonnes per year in 2030 and around 300,000 tonnes per year by 2050. The cumulative waste volume is estimated to reach millions of tonnes by 2050.

Recycling and reuse of the embedded materials or entire parts of the blades, as well as governing legislations for their end-of-life management will, therefore, be necessary to address this looming waste legacy.

Legislating for sustainable practices

Countries like Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Finland make a clear reference to composite materials in their waste legislation, which does not allow composites to be disposed of in landfill or incinerated. France is considering introducing a recycling target for wind turbines in its regulatory framework.

Landfill bans or taxes, combined with legislation that provides incentives for manufacturers, R&D providers, and wind farm operators, to achieve circular economy solutions can act as a driver to change industrial practices and stimulate the development of more environmentally effective processes. Incentives can be financial or support systems that encourage the collection, recycling, and reuse of the product as well as related R&D work, and provide a related sustainable support base.

Under an Extended Producer Responsibility (ERP) scheme, a manufacturer must consider and take responsibility for what needs to be done with the product at the end of its useful life. EPRs have been widely applied in Europe to products such as packaging, batteries, electronic equipment, and cars as a policy instrument to stimulate recycling and prevention of consumer waste.

For example, packaging producers are required to collect at least 55 per cent of packaging waste for recycling (directive 2004/12/EC) and, since 2016, battery producers are requested to collect 45 per cent of the batteries that are sold in Europe (2006/66/EC). As a result, annually in Europe, three million tons of packaging waste and 37,000 tonnes of spent batteries are collected for recycling and diverted from landfills.

To economically achieve these legally imposed targets, producers typically finance a Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO) that subsidises and monitors waste collection and recycling facilities for such products. Another option for legislating the end-of-life management of wind turbine blades may be similar to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE), and particularly the Business-to-Business (B2B) model.

Under such legislation, the producer must declare what adequate resources are available to finance environmentally sound management of the waste that is generated by the product at its end of life. Alternatively, the EU End-of-life Vehicle Directive provides an interesting option for managing wind turbine waste.

In accordance with the directive, producers should manufacture vehicles that allow reuse and recycling of the materials. For example, vehicles disposed of after 2015 should allow 95 per cent recovery with minimum 85 per cent recycling. Producers are responsible for the disposal of the vehicles. In Australia, existing legislation like the WEEE or an ERP scheme may not be sufficient for wind turbine blades.

However, a scheme that combines suitable components of such legislation might be a step toward a solution, potentially reducing waste through recycling and reuse of wind turbine blades, while simultaneously encouraging industry and R&D providers to develop and use easier-to-recycle materials and designs for wind turbine blades.

Planning for end of life from the beginning

For new wind farms, the existence of a binding ERP and B2B agreement between manufacturers and operators of wind farms could be a prerequisite for approving new wind farms, similar to environmental planning and assessment regulations. Such a binding agreement should outline how wind turbine blades will be managed, cost sharing agreements, and the various responsibilities of all parties to action the end-of-life processes.

Such legislation would also need to request the provision of funds from all parties to ensure that the agreed end-of-life processes can be actioned even if a partner has ceased business operations during the lifetime of the wind farm. In keeping with existing recycling legislation, the recycling of wind turbines should have related recovery and recycling rates, like end-of-life vehicle legislation.

However, to avoid such targets resulting in the recycling of only valuable parts of the wind turbine and not the blades, recovery and recycling targets can be articulated for each of the major parts of a wind turbine – tower and base, nacelle, and wind turbine blades.

For existing wind farms, and especially those that have been operating for some time, legislation requests for recycling of wind turbine blades would be very difficult to implement, as the business cases for these wind farms presumably do not always consider recycling of wind turbine blades and the related costs or cost sharing. However, wind farms that have only been operating for a few years may compensate for the additional cost over the lifetime of the wind farm.

A B2B model would ensure that legislators have a clear understanding of the end-of-life management of wind turbine blades outlined in detail by wind turbine manufacturers and wind farm operators, and the ability to monitor declared actions by the involved business at the end of the blade’s productive life. The problem of waste from wind turbine blades highlights a general characteristic of renewable energy systems in the way that they produce a significant, but unavoidable, waste volume at the end of their productive life.

While these energy generation systems are essential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the expected waste volume is in the millions of tons within the next couple of decades, as wind power and solar power require more material than conventional energy generation. The question is, therefore, how to manage the waste in the future, rather than how to avoid the waste.

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