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Circular economy strategies for more sustainable wind energy

Published 3 December 2020

By Dr Anne Velenturf, Research Impact Fellow in Circular Economy and Offshore Wind at the University of Leeds and leading research for the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult’s Circular Economy in the Wind Sector programme.

The offshore wind sector continues to soar with amazing growth pathways ahead. At the same time first-generation turbines are starting to reach the end of their service lives[i]. This wave of new construction combined with mass decommissioning presents the industry with fresh challenges in how it manages its resources[ii].

How can we sustainably secure the huge volumes of materials such as copper, cobalt and neodymium? And how do we manage components and materials in line with the green credentials of the sector? Circular economy approaches can turn these challenges into new business opportunities[iii].

A circular economy can be understood as the opposite of a linear economy in which we take-make-use-dispose resources. A circular economy aims to make better use of materials, components and products by minimising the amount of resources taken from the natural environment, maximising the prevention of waste and optimising their economic, social, technical and environmental values throughout consecutive lifecycles.

Image credit: Author generated and adapted from The Conversation.

 

The purpose of a circular economy is to organise our economy in such a way that it enables delivery on all sustainability aspects:

  • Fair access to resources for current and future generations to be able to have a good life
  • Absolute improvements to environmental quality, going beyond net-zero carbon and including broader environmental indicators such as impacts on the abiotic environment
  • Maintaining or strengthening economic prosperity

The circular economy approach is to deliver on these social, environmental and economic values by optimising the technical value of materials, components and products[iv]. This can be achieved through four types of strategies[v], in order of priority:

  1. Narrowing resource flows to reduce the amount of materials going around in the economy, e.g. through shape optimisation and eliminating avoidable waste;
  2. Slowing the flow of resources between the point of manufacturing and disposal. This can be achieved through a variety of strategies such as designing for durability, repair, reuse and remanufacturing of components and products, and lifetime extension and repowering of whole wind farms;
  3. Closing the loop of resource flows through recycling of materials;
  4. Safely integrating material flows back into natural processes by, for example, controlled storage in landfills and rigs-to-reefs approaches.

In total, more than 15 circular economy strategies have been identified. These strategies open new business opportunities that can help to make the offshore wind sector more sustainable.

Consider for example how many costs and emissions could be saved by: designing foundations and monopiles to last 60 years or longer having detailed data on component performance, remaining life and material contents; new port facilities for extended O&M and end-of-use management; and novel refurbishing and remanufacturing services as the scale of components starts to stabilise.

Image credit: Graphical abstract from Velenturf and Jopson (2019) in Science of The Total Environment.

 

Circular economy opens exciting prospects for increased local supply chain content and high-skilled job creation too. It has been estimated that circular economy can create 8 million jobs in the EU by 2030[vi]. It can help to reduce global carbon emissions by 63% by 2050 while opening $25 trillion in new business opportunities[vii]. In order to realise these opportunities, we will need far greater integration of policies and regulation on energy, infrastructure, planning, and resources and waste[viii].

The Sustainable Circular Economy for Offshore Wind project led by the University of Leeds and co-funded by EPSRC, ORE Catapult and the Department for International Trade aims to co-produce new business opportunities with the offshore wind sector to reap the benefits of a circular economy. On 12 January 2021 a workshop will be held and results will feed into further initiatives such as ORE Catapult’s Circular Economy for the Wind Sector joint industry programme and research on turbine blade recycling by DIT and the Energy Transition Alliance (ETA). Please contact Dr Anne Velenturf at A.Velenturf@leeds.ac.uk for further information about the project.

 

 

Footnotes

[i] Jensen et al (2020) Highlighting the Need to Embed Circular Economy in Low Carbon Infrastructure Decommissioning: The Case of Offshore Wind. Sustainable Production and Consumption, Vol. 24: 266-280. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352550920304413

[ii] Velenturf (2020) Challenges and opportunities for sustainable offshore wind development: Preliminary findings from a literature review and expert survey. Geoscience and The Energy Transition Sustainable Offshore Wind Development, University of Leeds. https://sri-working-papers.leeds.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/67/2020/11/SRIPs-122.pdf

[iii] See more details at: “Strategies for a Sustainable Circular Economy in Offshore Wind” at Innovation Offshore: The Role of Offshore Wind in Driving a Green Recovery organised by the Department for International Trade. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erN8Aa8RuDY&feature=youtu.be

[iv] Velenturf and Jopson (2019) Making the business case for resource recovery. Science of The Total Environment, Vol. 648: 1031-1041. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.08.224

[v] Bocken et al (2016) Product design and business model strategies for a circular economy. Journal of Industrial and Production Engineering 33, 308-320 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21681015.2016.1172124; Velenturf et al (2019) Circular Economy and the Matter of Integrated Resources. Science of The Total Environment, Vol. 689: 963-969. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969719330220

[vi] Calculated bases on: Stahel (2016) The Circular Economy. Nature 531: 435–38.

[vii] Circle Economy (2019) The circularity gap report 2019. https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/ad6e59_ba1e4d16c64f44fa94fbd8708eae8e34.pdf; Lacy and Rutqvist (2014) Waste to Wealth: Creating Advantage in a Circular Economy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

[viii] Mignacca, B., Locatelli, G., Velenturf, A.P.M. (2020) Modularisation as an enabler of circular economy in energy infrastructure. Energy Policy, Vol. 139. 111371. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421520301270