Wind turbine waste from decommissioning parts will increase in the coming decade as wind turbines installed in the early 2000s reach their end-of-life. Generating electricity from wind gained commercial interest during the late 1990s, and exponentially increased after 2000, at an annual average capacity growth of 29% y-o-y in the 2000s. By the end of 2010, global wind power capacity reached 180GW, more than 10 times that of end-2000. As much as an increase in wind power means well to reduce carbon emissions from the energy sector, markets globally will soon have to deal with wind turbines that have reached their end-of-life.
The EIA estimates that the designed lifespan of a wind turbine is 20 to 25 years which, given the aforementioned exponential growth in wind power capacity growth during the 2000s, will result in an increase in wind turbine waste this decade. We expect this to take the same exponential trend as how wind power capacity increased in the early 2000s. Already, dealing with wind turbine waste is a concern that corporations are dealing with now. For 2002 alone, 6.9GW of wind power capacity was installed globally. Considering the average capacity of wind turbines to be 1.6MW, as provided by IRENA for a 2009 estimate, we estimate the total number of wind turbines installed in 2002 to be 4312. This corresponds to an estimate of wind turbines that are expected to be decommissioned in 2022 alone, if we assume a 20-year design lifespan. Despite the increasing wind capacity, wind turbine manufacturers have been improving the lifespan and recyclability of their products. We expect this to minimise wind turbine waste to landfill and incineration in the long term. Additionally, we believe that technologies for the reuse and recycling of wind turbines will be more in higher demand, driving costs down and process chain efficiencies up.
North America and Europe will need to lead the recycling of wind turbines in the coming decade as the need for recycling will rise with the increasing number of decommissioning wind power projects. Over the coming decade, we expect North America and Europe to experience an increasing number of decommissioning wind power projects, as a result of the wind power growth experienced in the early 2000s. Our historical estimates show that North America and Europe took up 15% and 74% of the global wind capacity in 2000 respectively. These levels remained relatively unchanged by 2005, at 16% and 70% for the same two regions respectively.
After 2030, Asia will have the largest concern of dealing with wind turbines waste, as it is currently the region with the highest wind capacity installed. Assuming the lifespan of wind turbines to remain at 20 to 25 years, Asia will experience the most wind turbine waste come 2035 to 2040. In 2015, Asia overtook Europe in total installed wind capacity, mainly attributed to China’s robust annual average growth of 53% from 346MW in 2000 to 131,048MW in 2015. For comparison, Europe’s total wind capacity in 2015 was 147,785MW. Eventually, according to our forecasts, Asia will host more than triple North America’s and close to double Europe’s wind capacity by the end-2030.
Current methods of recycling wind turbine blades are limited in scale and landfills will remain more cost-attractive in the short term. In spite of increasing environmental pressure for companies to pursue circularity in waste management, methods to recycle wind turbines at the moment are limited. Before going into the recycling methods, we dissect a wind turbine into its main component categories:
- Blades that rotate when capturing wind energy from the natural environment.
- Generator that utilises the rotating motion of the rotor and converts it to electricity through a turbine.
- Support which consists of the yaw, that turns the rotor to face the incoming wind, the tower structure that supports the rotor and generator, and the foundation.
When comparing wind turbine parts, wind turbine blades are the hardest to recycle, out of all the other parts. Wind turbine blades are mostly made of composite materials that are difficult to separate into their respective source materials for current recycling processes. As for the other parts of the wind turbine, they are typically made from concrete (for the foundation), steel and cast iron (both for the support structure, generator and gearbox), of which there are well-established recycling facilities. As a result, disposing of wind turbine blades to landfills is currently considered a more cost-effective waste management method. Though there are efforts to recycle the blades, we stress that these efforts are still in the early stages of scaling up.
- General Electric (GE) sends blades to Veolia which shreds and turns them to conventional thermal fuel for cement production.
- Vestas started a recycling initiative that uses glass fibre in the blades for gasification, cement production, and reuse.
- Siemens Gamesa has developed a blade cast in a resin that allows for the separation of the blade’s materials with the resin at its end-of-life. This innovation is part of the company’s plan to make their wind turbines fully recyclable by 2040 and will start installing these recyclable blades in Germany’s Kaskasi offshore wind power plant.
- ENGIE is working with IRT Jules Verne, a French research institute, to develop fully recyclable wind turbine blades. The project is known as the ZEBRA project and released its first prototype on March 17 2022. Other partners on this project include LM Wind Power and Suez.