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Wind Turbine Waste Will Haunt Cleantech, Unless the Industry Innovates

Johnathon de Villier
Sep 24, 2020

Guidehouse Insights windmill

The wind industry must decide what to do with waste from outdated infrastructure. Wind power accounted for 17.4 GW of generation capacity globally in 2000. Two decades later, utility-scale wind farms produce some of the cheapest electricity available. Wind turbines are ubiquitous on land in many parts of the world and are increasingly common offshore. According to the Guidehouse Insights’ report, Global Wind Database 2Q20, the US alone installed roughly 8.3 GW of new capacity in 2019. The wind market is maturing, so are the turbine units. As older turbines near the end of their useful lives and are replaced with more sophisticated models and components, the wind industry faces the challenge of handling waste materials from decommissioned units.

The Wind Industry Is Just Beginning to Address Material Waste

The winds industry's waste management challenge is substantial. Though many components of wind turbines can be recycled, a 2016 study from City College of New York found that each megawatt of US-made wind capacity contributes 9.6 metric tons of fiberglass waste. As offshore wind market share increases and larger turbines are deployed, this figure will not improve without major advancements in materials and recycling. 

Annual Installed Wind Capacity and Resulting Fiberglass Waste, World Markets: 2020-2030

wind

(Source: Guidehouse Insights)

The most cost-effective solution is typically a landfill, but burying the problem is not environmentally or practically sustainable in the longer term. Wind turbines have a typical useful life of 20 to 25 years, with modern models exceeding 30 years or more. Turbines decommissioned in 2020 are largely models deployed in 2010 or earlier, and cumulative wind capacity increased nearly fourfold over that period. All that fiberglass is coming down the pipeline and Guidehouse Insights expects annual wind capacity additions to exceed 87 GW by 2030. Each gigawatt represents another 100 kT of waste.

Research Labs Are Developing Better and More Sustainable Blade Materials

Researchers at National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are researching new blade materials that can deliver high performance while fitting more neatly into a circular economy. Blades produced from advanced thermoplastic resin are expected to reduce manufacturing costs by up to 30% while improving durability and reducing maintenance costs. These blades could theoretically be assembled onsite at growing wind farms, eliminating the need to transport blades one at a time by truck. This change would create benefits for the project owner and for the climate. The challenge, as always, is to scale new material technologies quickly.

Material advances in the wind industry have the potential to produce simultaneous benefits for tidal and marine power generation, another turbine-driven technology. If Minesto, ANDRITZ Hydro, and other ocean generation companies can scale to meet Ocean Energy Europe's goal of 100 MW of ocean generation by 2030, new materials could help the industry reduce costs and avoid creating another future waste problem. 

Cleantech Is About Turning Challenges into Opportunities

Wind turbine waste is a clear cause for environmental concern. However, waste is not an inherent consequence of generating electricity from wind. Instead, it is a design challenge and not one unique to wind.

Policymakers can help by ensuring that innovative materials projects like those at NREL receive technology-agnostic grant support and explicitly consider long-term sustainability to accelerate the deployment of commercial-scale sustainable materials. The public and private sectors can invest in the future by funding startups and young companies that seek to process stockpiled waste.

From driving deep energy efficiency to designing a smart grid or removing carbon from the atmosphere, the principle of turning challenges into opportunities is a foundation of the cleantech industry. End-of-life waste management requires and deserves the same degree of creativity and support as the rest of cleantech.