Recyclable Wind Turbine Blade Promises to End Wind Power Waste

Major renewable energy companies are developing new technologies to recycle wind turbine blades, which typically end up in landfills.

Offshore wind farm, North Sea
Mischa Keijser / Getty Images

Siemens Gamesa, a leading wind turbine maker, has built what it claims to be the world’s first fully recyclable wind turbine blade, a major step toward reusing tens of thousands of blades.

Wind turbines are approximately 85% recyclable, with blades and a few other elements making up for the remaining percentage that cannot be recycled. That’s because blades are made with a variety of composite materials, including glass and carbon fiber, as well as a core material like wood or polyethylene terephthalate foam (PET), that are bound together with resin.

Thanks to this combination, wind turbines are light but tough, which allows them to move swiftly but also to withstand gale force winds.

Separating all these materials is technically possible but not cost-efficient. Designers have come up with ingenious ideas to give blades a second life, such as turning them into playgrounds, bicycle shelters, and pedestrian bridges

But, regardless, thousands of blades end up in landfills every year and the problem is getting worse because the wind energy sector is booming and in a bid to produce more power, blades are growing in size—some of them are longer than a football field.

Siemens Gamesa wants to avoid all this waste by creating “a circular economy of the wind industry,” in which all the elements of a wind turbine are reused.

A Siemens Gamesa blade factory in Denmark has produced the first six 81-meter long RecyclableBlades, and the Spain-headquartered firm has signed agreements with three European renewable energy companies that will install RecyclableBlade sets at several offshore wind power plants.

The blades are as strong and reliable as existing offshore blades, which typically last for around 20 years, Siemens Gamesa said. They are produced following the same manufacturing practices, the only difference is that they feature a new resin that dissolves when submerged in an acidic solution, allowing the company to separate and reuse the materials that make up the blade. 

“The chemical structure of this new resin type makes it possible to efficiently separate the resin from the other components at the end of the blade’s working life,” the company said in a statement

Siemens Gamesa told the Financial Times last month that the separated components cannot be used to make new blades because they won’t be able to withstand high wind speeds. However, they could be used to make products such as flat-screen TVs, flight cases, and car parts. 

The firm is studying whether these blades could also be used in onshore wind projects.

A growing problem

More than 130 countries harness the power of the wind to produce electricity. Wind power generation is expected to grow rapidly over the next decade as many countries have vowed to invest in renewable energy to reduce carbon emissions from the electricity sector. For example, about 1,500 turbines were installed in the U.S. in 2020, a number that is set to grow exponentially amid plans by the Biden administration to boost wind energy generation.

Last year, WindEurope, an organization representing the European Union’s wind industry, estimated that around 14,000 turbine blades will be decommissioned in Europe by 2023, and according to Bloomberg, approximately 8,000 blades will be dismantled in the U.S. in the next few years.

The European wind power industry has called for a Europe-wide ban on the landfilling of wind turbine blades by 2025 — Austria, Finland, Germany, and the Netherlands have already introduced similar bans. Renewable energy companies support a wider ban because they are confident they can design recyclable blades.

Many firms are taking steps in that direction. 

Back in May, Vestas, the world's largest wind turbine producer, said it is working on new technology to recycle its blades, and late last year, GE Renewable Energy unveiled a program to downcycle onshore wind turbine blades into cement as part of an agreement with Veolia, a resource management company.

“Blades that have been removed from turbines will be shredded at Veolia’s processing facility in Missouri and then used as a replacement for coal, sand, and clay at cement manufacturing facilities across the U.S.,” GE said at the time.

This summer, Denmark’s Ørsted, a major renewable energy company, pledged to “either reuse, recycle, or recover all of the wind turbine blades in its global portfolio of onshore and offshore wind farms upon decommissioning.”

View Article Sources
  1. Gignac, James. "Wind Turbine Blades Don't Have to End Up in Landfills." Union of Concerned Scientists, 2020.

  2. Orrell, Alice, et al. "Distributed Wind Market Report: 2021 Edition Summary." U.S. Department of Energy, 2021.

  3. "Cross-Sector Industry Platform Outlines Best Strategies For the Recycling of Wind Turbine Blades." WindEurope, 2020.