By Chris Hill, Operational Performance Director for ORE Catapult
Thirty years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that offshore wind could generate enough electricity to power every home in the UK. Today that target is one of the key pillars of the UK Government’s climate change policy. This vision has been driven by the passion of offshore wind’s pioneers to forge an alternative to fossil fuels and make renewable energy a commercial reality.
And now, with these spectacular cost reductions under our belts, our first-generation offshore turbines are approaching the end of their lives. These turbines do not just pose a practical question around their imminent disposal; they are also providing vital experience for increasing the sustainability of their successors. Last year, Vestas was the first manufacturer to pledge zero-waste turbines by 2040, and industry sustainability projects have rocketed over the course of the past year.
The environmental imperative to adopt circular economy practices is well documented. We need to reduce use of virgin materials, move to more sustainable and recyclable sources, and ensure components live longer lives– and even second lives as refurbished, reused or remanufactured parts.
How this can dovetail beautifully into the UK’s post-COVID recovery is only just entering mainstream thinking. We see a spinoff circular economy from wind as a valuable economic opportunity that would kick-start services, like blade recycling, that would have relevance across other sectors too. There is work to do, however, to address the low awareness among policymakers and business of the scale of the opportunity.
An offshore wind turbine is already 85-90% recyclable (in theory) with blades (made of composite resins and fibres) the final hurdle to full recyclability. The opportunity for the UK goes far beyond just recycling though, there is the lifetime extension of components (through refurbishment, for example), reuse and remanufacturing, as well as designing out waste and tough-to-recycle materials from the start.
We estimate that by 2050, the industry will need to decommission as much as 85GW of offshore wind capacity (translating to 325,000 blades), and that is not to mention the onshore wind due to be decommissioned. Even if these numbers do not take into account innovation that would extend the service life of turbines at sea, it provides an idea of the scale of a potential future circular economy. This brings us to the golden supply chain opportunity for the next decade: a spin-off circular economy from the wind sector that would create thousands of new jobs.
Those suppliers that can offer good solutions to recycling, for example, glass and carbon reinforced plastics, will have a huge market opportunity to exploit. But, what do we mean by ‘good’?
For adoption at scale, recycling processes need to make environmental sense (i.e. they should not be energy intensive or produce by-product pollution) and they should result recovered materials that are high enough quality to meet market demand. While metallic towers and foundations have recycling routes already available, none of the available technologies today tick these boxes when it comes to blades.
Through the Energy Transition Alliance Blade Recycling Project, collaboration on the SuSWIND and Carbo4Power projects, and the new Circular Economy in the Wind Sector (CEWS) JIP, we have an action plan for addressing this market need:
There are few UK companies in this arena currently, but that is set to change as publicity mounts around the ever-more ambitious sustainability targets of the industry and the economic prize that presents.
This month, we released a film designed to inspire UK technology developers, where we highlight the future circular economy opportunities presented by the end of life of a typical wind turbine. And this opportunity is a cross sector one, open to UK engineering companies, processing plants and shipyards, amongst many others.
Inspiration can be found among some of the first, pioneering companies to enter this arena:
Technology innovation and business development support is available through a number of programmes led by ORE Catapult, including the Energy Transition Alliance and the Circular Economy in the Wind Sector JIP.
Contact: CIRCULAR@ore.catapult.org.uk for more information on how these programmes could support your business.