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    Shovel recycling: "We are facing a real industrial opportunity".

    August 12, 2022 - CE Noticias Financieras


      To start somewhere, how many shovels were recycled in Spain last year?

      Well, to begin with, we have to differentiate between recycling and reusing. Up to now, what has been done in Spain has been to reuse. To reuse the blades in other parks. Old blades, wind turbine blades from wind farms that have been dismantled (old wind farms in which the old machines have been replaced by new ones), have been sold in second-hand markets. And those blades have been installed in other wind farms in other countries. Not only the blades, but the whole wind turbine. There are companies in Spain that have set up a kind of platform to auction energy assets, including second-hand wind farms, wind farms that, despite having operated for 20 years or more, are still in good condition and can continue to operate. This option is a good opportunity in countries where renewables are still not so developed; a good opportunity to acquire renewable equipment at very low cost. That is a very interesting way to reuse and give a second life to those assets. And that is what has been done so far.

      Any examples?

      In the last five years... we will not have reached ten repowered wind farms. One example... Malpica, a Galician wind farm that used to have 69 very low power machines, of approximately 200 kilowatts, which have been replaced by 11 more powerful wind turbines, so the environmental footprint is much smaller. The existing wind turbines have been used in these other markets. And the new wind turbines have much larger blades, which can take advantage of lower wind speeds. So, with the same installed power, we generate more energy. The old wind turbines, with low speeds, were at a standstill. The new models are already capable of taking advantage of those speeds. That is what we call repowering. And this is something that is going to start to be produced on a large scale in the next ten years in Spain, because we already have a fairly old installed base. Right now approximately 30% of the parks are already more than 15 years old. In any case, some will probably choose to extend the useful life.

      Extend the useful life?

      Yes, the design lifetime of a wind turbine is 20 years. But it is a theoretical useful life. What is being demonstrated is that, when the machines reach those 20 years, in the vast majority of cases, they are still in good condition, and can continue to operate. So, most of the owners do some revisions, some inspections, do some maintenance, and they can continue operating for a few more years. Because repowering is very expensive. The investment is practically the same as you would have to make to set up a new wind farm on a new site. It represents almost 95% of the costs. Anyway, at the end there comes a time when, whether you operate it for 20, 25, or? 30 years... that wind turbine is going to have to be replaced. And that time is going to come now, in the next decade. Well, that is when we believe that some 20,000 tons of used blades will be put on the market, or will have to be managed annually, some four thousand blades a year.

      And is that a lot or a little?

      Well, if we compare it with what we have in other sectors... it is really a very small value. Those 20,000 tons of shovels represent only 1.4% of the weight of plastic containers that are not recycled in Spain. Of those that are not recycled, I insist: 1.4%. In addition, they are not hazardous waste, they are not toxic, they do not generate leachates. But, whether it is a lot or a little, WindEurope and ESA have already committed to not taking a single shovel to landfill after 2025. However, in order to achieve this, and in addition to furthering reuse in the second-hand markets, we must ensure that the processes currently in place for recycling blades reach a sufficient technological level of development to make them implementable on a large scale.

      In other words, I understand that we are on the way: we still do not have recycling plants on a sufficient scale to attend to the recycling of those 3,000, 4,000 blades per year... because we still do not have those 3,000, 4,000 blades to recycle... and because, besides, the recycling solutions... they are still lacking a boil?

      We have not yet reached that rhythm (3,000, 4,000 shovels per year). We are expected to get there in the next four or five years. But -I make an aside-, the repowering will also depend, as I said before, on how expensive it is. Let?s see: repowering is positive because you achieve that a farm, with the same power, but with fewer wind turbines, produces twice as much energy. And you don't have to occupy new land. You take advantage of existing sites, but you get a higher yield from them, which is positive in terms of impact and meeting decarbonization targets... In many ways it is positive.

      The government is aware of this and has announced a line of aid to repower wind farms, subject to the components of the wind farm being recycled or reused. So, with these aids, which we hope will come out during this year, it is foreseeable that this process I mentioned will be accelerated... it is foreseeable that in four or five years we will start to have those 20,000 tons of blades. Because, if these aids go ahead, many promoters will be encouraged to repower before, and besides, we will be able to advance in the development of recycling solutions, which is what is still to be consolidated at a technological and industrial level.

      Well, in any case, what is being done right now with the shovels that break down, those that suffer an accident, a lightning strike, an irreparable crack?

      These are very exceptional cases. Normally the damaged shovel is disassembled, cut into pieces and taken to a dump. Or it is taken to a pilot recycling project. In addition, in our country we have a plant that uses the pyrolysis technique, which is a thermal process: the blades, cut into pieces, are put into very high-powered ovens, the materials are disintegrated and the original carbon fiber is recovered. Another option is solvo?lisis, which is a chemical process that also manages to recover the fiberglass. And another is mechanical recycling, which is perhaps the simplest option, and which consists of shredding the shovel and using the shredded material in the manufacture of insulation for construction or road pavements. The resulting materials thus achieve better properties. But neither are these solutions implemented on a commercial scale. Pilot projects have been carried out, and it has been seen that this works, that materials with better performance - in terms of insulation or resistance - are obtained, but these are solutions that are not yet commercially developed. So we have to continue advancing, so that they can lower their cost and become really usable options.

      What is the situation of blade recycling in Spain?

      There are R&D projects, which have already been carried out in all these fields. And we already have a pyrolysis plant in Spain and, in the last few months, some projects have been announced, which aim to be operational in 2023, 2024. The challenge of these technologies, both pyrolysis and solvo-lysis, is to ensure that the resulting fibers have the same physical properties as the original fiber. Because the by-product obtained is fiber, yes, but of lower quality. It cannot be used for structural applications. For example, the fiber from pyrolysis cannot be used to make a shovel again. This is a challenge: to improve these processes and obtain more efficient, higher quality fibers. Among other things, because the higher the quality, the greater the number of applications that will emerge for these by-products, which will be beneficial in all senses: more market for recycled fibers, for example, greater probability of being able to absorb all the blades that are being dismantled?

      There are those who say that there is a huge window of opportunity here?

      Yes, we are facing a real industrial opportunity. And we are the ones who are leading the way. Spain, for example, is the only country that has a pyrolysis plant. Reciclalia, in Toledo. In addition, the Government has identified the recycling of blades as an industrial opportunity, at least on paper... in the aids linked to the recovery plans... The action plans of the Circular Economy Strategy also include specific actions for the wind energy sector and the recycling of blades. Of course... all of that then has to be implemented. But, indeed, this is a very important industrial opportunity. There are wind turbine factories and blade factories, which opened more than 15 or 20 years ago here, which were designed for older wind turbine models, and which can be reconverted into recycling centers. And not only to meet the demand of the wind energy sector and treat the blades, but also to serve other sectors that also use fiberglass and carbon fiber, such as the aeronautical, naval or automotive sectors. This opens up a very interesting industrial opportunity for Spain. We have a certain positioning advantage over other countries, and if we are a bit clever, we can use it and position ourselves as a recycling center for this type of products in Europe.

      - Interview included in the March edition of the paper magazine Energías Renovables (ER 209), which includes a Wind Energy Special.


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