Wind turbine blades: an ecological problem for clean energy

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Until now, the recycling of windmill blades may have gone unnoticed because it was not a problem that was going to affect immediately and because, in addition, it is not that big if we compare it with other sectors such as the automobile industry. Wind turbines have a useful life of 20 to 25 years (up to 30 in some cases, if some components are replaced) and it has not been necessary to change the structure. However, that date is getting closer every day in many cases.

Thousands of blades in the wind

When a plant is modernized, what do we do with the blades that can be 20 meters high? The ideal is to give them a second life and, although technology is advancing and resources are increasing, it is difficult to know if the world is ready to take on the recycling of windmill blades. Instead, many wind turbine blades that have had to be replaced so far have gone to the second-hand market.

As the number of windmill blades that have to be replaced increases, it will become more difficult for the second-hand market to position itself as a sufficient solution.

Recycling is the best option.

In the European Union, several projects and grants have been approved in this direction: Life-BRIO and Horizon are two of them. The aim is to find the technology that can eliminate the environmental footprint of a blade from wind energy.

One of the challenges is investment. Research investments are smaller and easier to finance. On the other hand, the start-up of industrial equipment resulting from the development of this research is a much higher investment and investors are much more difficult to find. Add to all this the economic situation and the global pandemic.

Economic profit is now scarce and this has limited the emergence of companies. The recycling processes that have a cost, in the case of fiberglass makes the business benefit is considerably lower than when carbon fiber blades are recycled and as the benefit is scarce, the emergence of companies is limited at this time.

The lack of regulations makes this even more difficult. For the recycling of windmill blades there is currently no regulation as there is for other waste such as tires, with an integrated management system.

Wind turbine blades recycling
Compared to plastic, the waste that comes from wind energy is less, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem

So far, the windmill blades that have been replaced have been partly absorbed by the second-hand market. The main objective is to sell windmills that are still operating in countries that have less developed wind farms and a less evolved wind energy industry. The other use is to have spare parts of the same models in other wind farms. Selling wind turbines to other countries that are starting to bet on wind energy is a good way to try to give a second life to the most difficult to recycle parts of wind turbines, such as the blades. But it is not the ultimate solution.

First, as the need to replace wind turbines increases, it will be more difficult for the second-hand market to absorb all the demand. Secondly, this is a way of dragging out the problem, which will eventually arrive anyway. Installations have been sold to countries in North Africa, Central Europe and also to some European Union countries. But the time will come when these wind turbines will reach the end of their useful life.

If it has been sold to a European country, it is possible that the technology to recycle the windmill blades and possible future legislation will prevent them from ending up in a landfill. But that is not the case in other countries. For example, if wind turbines are sold to North African or non-EU countries, what guarantees are there that the waste will be managed properly? There aren’t.

The wind turbine is environmentally friendly.

There is a possibility that in one of these countries, windmill blades will not be recycled. The AEE, together with its European counterpart WindEurope, asked the European Council to prohibit the blades from being thrown into the landfill by 2025.

Compared to plastic, the waste that comes from wind energy is less, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. Experts agree that the crux of the matter is not only the environmental issue, but the legislation related to wind energy. As it currently stands, the recycling of these materials is not taken into consideration.

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