wind turbines with mountains in background

Solving the problem: recycling and recovery of decommissioned wind turbines

Crystal Leiker Associate Planner
Crystal Leiker

Crystal is an Associate Planner based in the Dublin office and is the renewable energy lead for Ireland. Crystal works as a Planning and EIAR coordinator for renewable energy, built environment and tourism projects. Crystal's recent experience has focused on large-scale offshore and onshore renewable infrastructure projects, Strategic Infrastructure Development (SID) and Strategic Housing Development (SHD) projects.  

Wind turbine blades have long been touted among wind energy critics as an environmental nightmare due to the limited recycling opportunities available for end-of-life blades and the type of construction materials used in the blade manufacturing process. There have been numerous examples of end-of-life specialist turbine landfills filling up across the world, further fuelling the anti-wind and environmental movements. These criticisms cause issues for wind energy developers who seek to develop clean energy and assist in phasing out carbon-based fuel for power and energy demands. 

However, science has progressed in tandem with climate action campaigns, with several multidisciplinary and scientific research projects identifying innovative processes for recycling and re-purposing wind turbine blades in the circular economy. As CO2 targets loom large for many of the world’s economies, it is more important than ever to consider innovative ways in which to cut our carbon footprints, the wind energy industry is partnering with universities, private business and public sector to cut carbon footprints through re-use, repurposing and recycling turbine blades. Here are just a few examples of this in practice:

  • GE Renewable Energy has signed a multi-year agreement with Veolia to recycle decommissioned blades across its numerous wind development sites in North America. This agreement allows the shredding of decommissioned blades to lower cement manufacturing emissions by as much as 27%. The blades are processed to create material that can be used in the production of Portland cement utilising the silica content in decommissioned blades, so less sand and gravel will be necessary to produce concrete, and it will be an alternative bio-fuel in cement kilns, which would reduce coal use and lower CO2 emissions through oxidative pyro analysis. This venture will recycle and recover approximately 90% of the blade material by weight.
  • HS2 Limited has initiated a pilot project to re-purpose decommissioned turbine blades for use on a high-speed rail project whereby suitable sections of wind turbine blades will replace steel rebar in reinforced concrete.
  • Denmark is repurposing decommissioned turbine blades for small infrastructure projects such as outdoor bike shelters
  • Under the Re-Wind Project, the Georgia Institute of Technology in conjunction with University College Cork, Queens University Belfast and City University of New York, have been investigating the use of decommissioned blades for roofs, power lines and pedestrian / cycle bridges.
  • Cranfield University is conducting several research projects into the use of graphene to refurbish existing turbine blades, allowing the life span of blades to be increased rather than decommissioned.
  • It is currently possible to extract carbon fibre from turbine blades and recycle for use in the automotive industry through the use of carbon fibre reinforced plastics (CFRP).

These are just a few examples of innovation in the recycling and recovery of decommissioned wind turbines in the last three years, and the research is ongoing.

As renewable energy continues to boom across the world more research and innovation into the sensitive decommissioning of turbines, in tandem with the use of widely recycled materials in new turbine blade development, may soon make the existing blade landfills a distant memory.

SLR is committed to helping organisations lower their carbon footprint; please contact our Infrastructure or Power teams for more information.

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