Green energy garbage. What to do with used windmills? Huge recycling problems

When looking at a modern wind turbine from a distance, it is difficult to see its actual size. Generator and rotor blades are usually very high. Only when they are transported, assembled or disassembled do you see how huge they are.

Currently, the development of wind energy in Germany has slowed down, few new wind farms are approved. However, there is still a need to maintain the existing ones, especially if the country wants to achieve its energy transition goals.

Generators and blades need to be regularly serviced and sometimes replaced, either because of wear and tear and the risk of accidents, or because of a planned wind farm expansion. Wind turbines themselves have a limited lifetime. This leaves behind huge piles of massive old turbine blades that are very difficult to recycle or reuse. Many of them end up in landfills or are incinerated.

30,000 windmills in Germany

East Frisia, the region bordering the Netherlands and the North Sea, is one of the preferred locations in Germany for onshore wind farms. The proximity to the sea means that the wind almost always blows there. Additionally, in this flat area there are no mountains, large hills or tall buildings that could be in the way. Here, operators have gained many years of experience in wind turbine construction and dismantling, and learned how difficult it is to recycle fiberglass blades.

There are currently 30,000 wind turbines on land in Germany today. Multiply this by three and you will get the number of rotor blades that rotate conscientiously generating green electricity, Wolfram Axthelm, Managing Director of the German Wind Energy Association (BWE) told DW.

Some wonder if these German wind farms will continue to operate in the near future or will have to be dismantled and replaced by new, more efficient systems.

“The dismantling of wind farms is not a major topic at the moment,” says Axthelm. – Despite this, we have about 10,000. tonnes of rotor blades per year that are dismantled and recycled.

There is a plant in Bremerhaven that prepares blades for thermal recycling in the cement industry. Fiberglass composite material is used there instead of heavy crude oil.

Problematic recycling of wind turbines

The energy giant Vattenfall wants to recycle 50 percent of its rotor blades by 2025. It is expected to reach 100 percent by 2030.

“ It is unacceptable that waste composite materials from the wind energy industry end up in landfills, ” said Eva Philipp, head of Vattenfall Business Area Wind’s environment and sustainability unit in October 2021, when the company announced that it would immediately begin reusing or recycling the old rotor blades.

However, others in the industry are cautious about this. Given the difficulties in separating the various composites due to the lack of readily available chemical processes, the plan seems very ambitious. The main problem is the size and composition of the blades, which are mostly made of glass fiber or carbon fiber reinforced plastics bonded with resins. Apart from being difficult to transport, there are no chemical processes that can separate the individual composite materials in an economical manner.

Turbine recycling possibilities

How could wind turbine blades be reused? It certainly wouldn’t be a matter of repairing old turbines, which, as Eva Philipp from Vattenfall explains, are unsuitable for this after a long work.

“If a wind farm cannot be operated any longer, then its components are usually so worn out that they have to be recycled,” he says.

It is also not possible to combine two turbines into one of a larger size and power. “A worn rotor blade is used in other ways, such as partitions,” explains Philipp.

The idea of ​​building a new blade from the two old ones is also unrealistic for the head of the German Wind Energy Association, Wolfram Axthelm. “It’s not up for debate at the moment,” he says. Nevertheless, he believes that the plan of the energy company is realistic. Other companies have also announced that by 2030 they will be ready to increase the recycling rate of their turbines.

No political decisions in Germany

Efforts to achieve more sustainable development will initially be costly. – At the moment we do not see any economic solutions. We see this as a topic we have to deal with in the context of how we deal with waste, new regulations and the circular economy, says Eva Philipp. – At the moment, recycling of turbine blades is more expensive than burning them. Of course, we hope that as these technologies develop, they will become cheaper, she added.

Christian Dreyer, a composer specialist and professor at the University of Technology in Wildau, sees part of the problem in the German government and current regulations. – They are not forcing us to recycle parts yet – he commented in an interview with DW, adding that further research should be carried out at the same time. – Sooner or later, there will be recipes. Then the solution would be at an advanced stage of development – he says.

The article comes from the Deutsche Welle website

About Eric Wilson

The variety offered by video games never ceases to amaze him. He loves OutRun's drifting as well as the contemplative walks of Dear Esther. Immersing himself in other worlds is an incomparable feeling for him: he understood it by playing for the first time in Shenmue.

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