How recyclable are wind turbines?

Stuart Gentry on whether wind turbines can be recycled or not.

Renewables often come under fire due to a lack of understanding of how they work and how they themselves can be recycled.

Two aspects of wind power that are commonly asked about are the costs involved in setting it up and the sustainability of the hardware. In this blog, I’ll look specifically at wind turbines and whether they can be fully recycled.

It’s important to address these kinds of questions in order to promote transparency within the renewable energy sector. More people need to understand what’s involved at grassroots level and I hope to answer some of these questions.

Why use wind power in the first place?

Wind turbines are a great way to provide clean, zero carbon and cheap electricity. They have become a common sight in the UK, with some wind turbines on land. You will also see offshore wind farms in some locations.

Recent figures show that the UK has more than 11,000 wind turbines currently working away to provide up to 28 gigawatts of energy. This is split between onshore and offshore generated energy. Impressively, this is the sixth biggest capacity of any country in the world.

How much electricity does wind power generate in the UK?

Wind power generates about a quarter of all UK electricity. It has provided more than coal since 2016 and more than nuclear energy since 2018. In fact, it’s the biggest overall source of renewable electricity in the UK.

This is backed by generally favourable support from the population, with around 75% strongly in favour of using more wind power in the future.

How do wind turbines work?

The turbines we see along the skyline harness the wind’s kinetic energy and convert it into mechanical energy. This then generates electricity in a totally self-replenishing and non-polluting way.

Wind energy emits zero harmful emissions and does not harm the earth’s atmosphere. For all of these reasons, it’s considered one of the most efficient and best forms of renewable energy.

However, it is vital that truly green energy is also fully sustainable in terms of its entire lifespan. Tis means taking into account its waste impact too.

What happens to wind turbine blades at the end of their life cycle?

The first wind turbines became operational in the UK in the mid 1990s. As such, they are coming to the end of their lifespan and are now heading towards being decommissioned. This gives rise to concerns about what happens to the material being used.

In the industry, we often come across people who hold various misconceptions about wind turbines. One of these is that the components of wind turbines can’t be recycled. And while it’s true that some parts can’t be fully recycled, all manufacturers and wind turbine operators are finding innovative ways to either rebuild, reuse or recycle.

What goes into a wind turbine blade?

Wind turbine blades contain around 96% recyclable materials. Typically, the outer shell, gearing, electrical components and shafts are made of materials such as copper, aluminium, steel and recyclable plastics.

A single wind turbine has more than 8,000 different parts, with a lifespan of up to 25 years. We have found that the majority last between 20 and 25 years of full use.

At the end of their life, most components of a wind turbine can be recycled or reused. However, the blades are made from different materials than the rest of the machinery. These are always made from fibre glass.

An average blade size is around 50 metres long – that’s the turbines we see onshore. The offshore turbines tend to be taller, and many are up to 90 metres long.

What happens to the blade?

At the end of its lifespan, the fibreglass blade can’t be fully recycled. Fibre glass is not biodegradable and is made up of fine strands of glass and plastic. These materials are difficult to recycle, which means it ends up being incinerated or in landfill.

However, not all first-gen wind turbine blades are going to landfill. There are various ways in which the aw materials can be extracted from them and reused in different structures or as part of new building projects.

For example, scientists and expert engineers have crafted a way to turn fibreglass from the turbines into a major component used in cement production. Others are finding innovative ways to repurpose the structural blades in their entirety for use as everything from noise barriers in the US to bike sheds in Denmark or footbridges in Ireland.

Will turbines ever become totally recyclable?

Engineers and scientists around the world are now focusing research and efforts on trying to find designs for turbines that utilise biodegradable materials such as thermoplastics. Alternatively, they are looking for materials that can be repurposed when the turbine has come to the end of its workable life.

Even with the restraints on fully recycling wind turbines, there is no doubt that the positives of wind power far outweighs the negative aspects. Wind power plays an absolutely critical role n the world collectively reaching a net zero future.