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20 May 2021

Vestas dismisses “wind’s dirty downside” with full blade recycling

Vestas – the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines – has unveiled a solution to one of the sector’s largest hurdles, blade recycling. The company, which has now formed a coalition with several industry and academic leaders, claims that it will commercialize a new approach to allow turbine blades to be fully recycled, avoiding the dumping of old blades.

With wind power set to approach 5,000 GW of capacity worldwide by 2050, and as many as four million turbine blades will be in active operation, with as many as 200,000 – each waying around 70 tons – facing retirement each year. A study by the Electric Power Research Institute has predicted that this could account for 0.015% of all the municipal solid waste going into landfills. The University of Cambridge similarly expects 43 million tons of turbine waste to enter landfills within this time period.

In Europe, 3,800 blades are already being retired annually. While 85% to 90% of turbine components – including steel, copper wire, gearing and electronics – can be recycled, their fiberglass and epoxy resin structures have recently attracted headlines for being piled up in landfill sites. Designed to withstand extreme weather conditions, “most landfills are considered a dry tomb,” according to Bob Cappadona, COO of Veolia.

Similarly, for the owners of wind power projects, the cost to send a single blade to landfill is close to $1,000 – a figure that adds up quickly when decommissioning a wind farms with a capacity of several hundreds of megawatts.

The new Vestas coalition – the Circular Economy for Thermosets Epoxy Composites (CETEC) – aims to enable circularity for these thermoset composites within turbine blades, delivering the final step towards a fully recyclable wind turbine value chain. Within three years, the group is planning to present its ‘fully-scoped’ solution to the industry.

The group includes Olin, the world leading producer of Epoxy, the Danish Technological Institute (DTI), and Aarhus University, which were part of the Dreamwind research project behind the innovation, with some of its funding coming from the Innovation Fund Denmark (IFD).

The process itself consists of two steps. In the first, thermoset composites are separated into fiber and epoxy. In the second, a novel ‘chemcycling process is used to break the epoxy into further base components, which are much closer to its virgin materials. Once split down into these constituent parts, these materials can then be reintroduced into the manufacturing of new turbine blades, introducing a new circular pathway for epoxy resin.

“The key characteristic of composite materials is their unique combination of low weight and high strength. This is governed by the strong bonding of two different materials – fiber and epoxy. The dilemma is that this strong bond is also the feature that renders these materials difficult to recycle. Therefore, the development of CETEC’s novel technology, enabling disassembly of the composite at end-of-life, is a gamechanger, that will allow us to capture the value represented by each material stream in a new circular value chain”, said Simon Frolich, Team Manager at the Danish Technological Institute.

When fully developed, the solution may also have an impact for other industries that rely on thermoset composites in production, such as automotive and aviation, according to the group. For Vestas, the technology will be essential to its pledge to produce zero-waste turbines by 2040.

Decarbonizing technologies, such as wind and solar for power generation or electric vehicles, are increasingly facing pressure to include circular economy considerations within their designs. Polestar – an electric-only brand owned by Volvo – recently set an ambition to create the world’s first carbon neutral car by 2030, while many renewable power OEMs are hoping to eliminate their emissions from manufacture, while seeking greater levels of recyclability. With a shift in commodity demand for many of these products, the need to reduce the energy intensive mining processes and fragmentation of forests was a key point in the highly anticipated Dasgupta report in February. Dasgupta identifies this as “Decoupling the global ecological footprint,” which “also serves to remind us that measures to reduce environmental pollution, can raise our demand for the biosphere’s products.”

Vestas is not alone in trying to find the circular-solution for turbine blades, with many academics trying to find better ways to separate resins from fibers or to break the blade material into small chunks and repurpose it for pellets or boards.

In the European Union, where landfill input is strictly regulated, some blades are burned in kilns that create cement or heat for power generation. The low energy content of their material, however, and the high level of pollutants resulting from this, make the solution far from ideal.

Other initiatives have been instigated by Veolia and General Electric, which have aimed to grind turbines into dust before the extraction of chemicals – again for use in the cement industry. Global Fiberglass Solutions, a Texas-based start-up, has also developed a method to break down blades and press them into pellets and fiber boards to be used for flooring and walls, with CEO Don Lilly claiming that the company “can process 99.9% of a blade and handle about 6,000 to 7,000 blades a year per plant.”

The DecomBlades program was iniated by LM Wind Power last year, with a similar ambition to take blades to 100% recyclability. Aker Solutions has also signed an MoU with the University of Stratchclyde to commercialize a process developed at lab scale for thermal recovery and post-treatment of glass fibers from glass-reinforced polymer composites (GRP) scrap to achieve near-virgin quality glass fibers.

Elsewhere in the supply chain, companies like Modvion are exploring the use of wooden wind turbine towers, hoping to reach commercialization in 2022, suggesting that replacing a 225 meter steel tower with one made of wood would save 2,000 tons of CO2 emissions.