Ever Wondered What Happens To Wind Turbines At The End Of Their Life?

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Their blades are around the length of a Boeing 747 wing and they weigh roughly 22 tonnes which is about 11 times the weight of a car. So what happens to wind turbines at the end of their lifetime?

An Australian study has found that tens of thousands of wind turbine blades will be heading to landfill in the next 20 or so years in Australia, which is where most wind turbines from around the world end up anyway. But there’s an opportunity to stop this and it’s by figuring out end-of-life programs for the devices but the clock is ticking.

How Wind Energy Works

Wind energy is one of the main sources of renewable energy for Australia generating enough electricity to meet 7.1 percent of the country’s total electricity needs. Solar energy follows close behind and produces roughly 6.5 percent of the country’s electricity.

But as we continue to build renewable energy products what remains a little murky is where it will end up at the end of its life.

Professor Peter Majewski from the Future Industries Institute at University of South Australia said “the lifetime of the systems usually for wind powers or wind farms is 10 to 25 years.”

What’s Happening With Wind Blade Turbines?

The problem for wind turbines is that their blades are made up of materials like carbon fire or glass fibre which are extremely hard and expensive to break down. Only 30% of the fibre-reinforced plastic material can be reused to make new materials and that mostly goes to the cement industry as filler material.

But in most parts of the world wind turbine blades are being dumped in landfills. Some European countries have banned the practice but with little to offer in the way of alternative solutions.

It’s important to note here that wind turbines are still way better than coal or gas because they famously don’t pollute the air while making us sweet sweet energy. And the waste they produce doesn’t even compare to the impact of fossil fuels on the environment.

What The Study Indicates

A study led by the University of South Australia has found that wind turbine blades around the world at the end of their life-time will equate to tens of thousands of tons of waste by 2050.

“So if you have a wind farm with one gigabot of output at the current state of the yard, you would have something like 333 wind towers and once they are decommissioned you have a thousand blades to take care of,” explained Professor Majewski.

In Australia there were 94 wind farms by 2018 and that number just keeps growing. This is unless the government does something about it.

Professor Majewski believes it’s up to the government to step in and basically say to all stakeholders “you need to find a way to deal with the waste, once wind farms are decommissioned.”

Professor Majewski and his colleagues offered different solutions, adding the cost of disposing of the blades into the cost of manufacture or the cost of their operations is one way of proactively handling waste.

“Product stewardship schemes are already in place, tires for example. Every time you buy a tire you pay, I don’t know how much, a few cents for the new tire in order to help the industry to get rid of the old tire.”

Another way is to set up voluntary schemes and put more money into research funding new recycling technologies or ways to reuse them. Peter mentioned some quirky options in Denmark where engineers are turning the blades into bus and bicycle shelters but there’s only so many of those we could make.

“So it’s not to avoid the waste because we can’t avoid having solar panels or wind farms because we need to be independent of fossil fuel,” he pointed out.

But this doesn’t mean it has to be dull, the world’s first fully recyclable wind turbine blades from Denmark are being tested as we speak at an offshore wind farm in Germany. That particular company’s goal is to make whole wind turbines fully recyclable by 2040 so this space is definitely one to watch.