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The wind industry’s opportunity to lead the circular economy of the future

Published 18 January 2021

The enormity of the offshore wind industry’s potential to tackle climate change and contribute to the UK’s Net Zero targets is hard to over-state. The prospect of renewable energy powering the entire electricity network of a country like the UK was a niche idea 30 years ago – it is now a goal rapidly being achieved and a core target of UK Government policy.

Our industry forged the green energy revolution in the crucible of engineering innovation and ambitious visions for a more sustainable energy supply. It now has the opportunity to lead the way in creating a zero-waste economy for materials and manufacturing too.

Fast-emerging in the wind sector are a new raft of supply chain companies with circular economy at their heart — the likes of ORE Catapult’s partner Renewable Advice, which is pioneering recycling of wind farm turbine blades, and Renewable Parts, which specialises in refurbishment and remanufacture of wind turbine components.

In the past year, the industry has launched a number of new research and technology innovation projects too. Just last week, Dr Anne Velenturf of the University of Leeds who is working with ORE Catapult on circular economy, was joined by a panel of our experts to introduce some of these initiatives at an industry workshop.

Here are some of the highlights and presentations from the workshop.

Tony Fong: The Anatomy of an Offshore Wind Farm

Tony Fong is ORE Catapult’s Engineering Manager in the Operational Performance Team. 

One of the main challenges we face in developing circular economy approaches is getting an accurate picture of the mass of materials involved. Our estimates require proprietary information, and a system for forecasting the scale of future assets is not yet designed. Improving knowledge is the core strategy for ORE Catapult’s circular economy projects.

A clear view of current and future materials is the first step to creating the circular economy approaches that the wind industry has asked us to help develop. It will also empower the supply chain and technology developers to develop new environmental and cost-reduction solutions for decommissioning wind farms.

Let’s take one material. Our best estimates at the moment put the mass of steel in foundations (monopiles and jackets of offshore wind turbines only) at 3.5 million tonnes by 2025. Steel is also present as nuts and bolts throughout the turbine and is a key material for the nacelle (drivetrain and generators) and towers (which can weigh approximately 600 tonnes for a 10MW turbine).

Steel is highly recyclable and there is a well-developed recycling market for it. Better knowledge will allow us to move further up the zero-waste hierarchy, however, and go beyond current practice. That means designing the aforementioned components for doubled or triple lifetimes, refurbishment and re-use, as well as improving recycling techniques for minimised environmental footprints and costs.

Lorna Bennet: The Blade Recycling Project

Lorna Bennet is ORE Catapult’s Project Engineer leading the ETA Blade Recycling and related projects.

The Blade Recycling project is led by ORE Catapult in partnership with the Oil and Gas Technology Centre (OGTC) as part of our Energy Transition Alliance for furthering advanced technology development in the energy industry. The project is mapping the potential future solutions for recycling blades and a techno-economic analysis of their suitability for large-scale deployment.

The first thing to understand is that 80-90% of a wind turbine is already widely considered recyclable using current techniques. Blades, as composite material structures, are trickier (an issue that all industries that use composites face). As they get bigger, the drive to find the most cost-effective and sustainable recycling solutions heats up.

The 29.1GW of offshore wind power that we have installed globally translates to approximately 2.5 million tonnes of turbine blade composite material. Around 60,000 tonnes of it is expected to be decommissioned within the next two years. The key to recycling will be the separation of several materials commonly found in these composites: glass and carbon fibres, as well as thermoplastic and thermosetting resins.

Phase 2 of this research, which will be published in the spring, compares and aims to map the routes for adapting and upscaling some established recycling techniques for blades as well as the viability of more novel, cutting-edge approaches.

Some techniques considered for industry-wide scale-up are:

  • Development of bio-composites and novel blade materials that are easily recyclable for next-generation turbines
  • Pyrolysis (subjecting materials to 350-700°C temperatures to extract resins and reclaim carbon fibres);
  • Thermal processing (microwave heating of material in an inert atmosphere)
  • Solvolysis (a way of recovering resins and fibres through solvent treatment)
  • And reprocessing materials for re-use as milled fibres, chopped tows, pellets and non-woven mats.

Sean Haughey: Circular Economy in the Wind Sector JIP

Sean Haughey is the Funding Proposal Specialist at ORE Catapult. 

Mapping the material make-up of the wind industry for the coming decades is one of the core activities of ORE Catapult’s latest joint industry project, which is set to launch in the spring. The Circular Economy in the Wind Sector JIP (CEWS) will focus on this as well as the blade recycling challenge outlined by Lorna.

The JIP’s scope will also cover other core challenges highlighted to us by wind industry operators and the supply chain:

Cost Strategy: Similar to the system used for leasing sites to the oil and gas industry, wind farm owners agree a decommissioning bond as part of their initial leasing agreement. Quite often, the true cost can often outstrip the bond after 25 years or more of asset lifetimes have passed. Identifying a roadmap for cost reduction and identifying new innovations that will support this drive will form a core of the JIP’s work.

Recycling, End of Life and Repowering Strategies: As mentioned by Tony, there is no established methodology for mapping current and future materials, and we also lack a standard approach to assessing the useful remaining lifetimes of components, particularly monopiles. Part of the JIP’s mission is to agree industry-led best practice and standards in this area that will also help industry to make decisions about repowering of old sites too.

Advisory board members of the project include: Crown Estate and Crown Estate Scotland, Environment Agency, Ofgem, National Composites Centre, Zero Waste Scotland among others.