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Going circular: An untapped economic opportunity in the wind sector

Published 26 March 2021

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 nowwith 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 successorsLast 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 documentedWe 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.  

The hard figures of opportunity

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 decadea 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: 

  • Engaging the UK supply chain and academia in meeting the remaining innovation challenges for at-scale recycling. Ultimately, the success of a blade recycling drive will be judged by the saleability of end products that come from it and the quantity of virgin material avoided.
  • And collaboration with a cross-sector of industries that are working on their own challenges through the UK’s National Composites Centre (part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult). 

Increasing UK job creation targets

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: 

  • Renewable Parts, a company based in Argyllshire, Scotland, that is currently expanding its operations to meet growing demand from UK wind farms for its refurbishment of wind turbine components. They currently move 136,000 parts and consumables (refurbished items, new items, oils, greases etc.) through their supply chain and divert 50 tonnes of waste from landfill per year.
  • ACT Blade is a spin-off from yacht-sail developer SMAR-Azure. Based in Edinburgh, the company has invented an alternative to today’s blade using a textile-based solution for modular blades that can be potentially made from recycled materialsThe blade is both 32% lighter than today’s wind farm blades (cutting material use) and increases energy production by nine per cent. 
  • Greenspur, based in Hatfield, is pioneering a more sustainable alternative to rare earth magnets for turbine generators. While rare earth is a scarce resource and involves toxic processes in its mining, their ferrite solution comes at a lower cost and with a more sustainable and secure supply. 
  • Cornwall’s ARC Marine is currently trialling its Reef Cubes® off the south west coast of EnglandBuilt from 98% recovered materials from local quarrying, these cubes create complex marine habitats at the base of wind turbines, while protecting subsea assets such as cables, monopiles, foundations and pipelines.  

Where next?

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.