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Wind goes circular with the world’s first commercial recyclable blades

© ShutterstockWind turbine blades

Germany’s Kaskasi offshore wind power project is the first commercial offshore wind project to be powered using recyclable blades.

The North Sea project is owned by German energy developer RWE Renewables (OTC:RWEOY), and will generate 342 MW of clean energy for up to 400,000 German households. Three turbines in the project will be equipped with the pioneering recyclable blades supplied by renewables manufacturer Siemens Gamesa (IBEX:SGRE).

The new 81m RecyclableBlade is made up of the same materials found in conventional blades, with the only difference being the composition of the resin used to cement and strengthen the blades. Once the blade of a turbine is decommissioned, the blade’s components can be reclaimed using a mild acid solution to separate the resin, fiberglass, wood, and other materials.

Siemens Gamesa claims that these materials can then go into the circular economy by creating new products like suitcases or flat-screen casings.

The manufacturer developed this new technology in 10 months after announcing the project in September 2021. The company expects that the price parity between conventional blades and RecyclableBlades to be achieved rapidly, and to only offer the more sustainable option once this is achieved.

Already, other energy developers have announced intentions to use the new blade in future projects, such as Sweden’s Vattenfall for the Hollandse Kust Zuid 1-4 offshore wind project in the Netherlands.

Sven Utermohlen, offshore wind CEO at RWE Renewables highlighted that “the world’s first recyclable wind turbine blades under operational conditions is a significant step in advancing the sustainability of wind turbines to the next level”.

A solution to the wind industry’s sustainability woes

Wind power is one of the most widespread forms of renewable energy available today, with 837 GW of capacity installed globally by the end of 2021 according to trade body Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC). GWEC says this capacity helps the world avoid over 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 annually, equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of South America.

The carbon footprint of wind power’s full lifecycle is the lowest out of all energy technologies per kilowatt hour of energy produced, according to the national laboratory of the US Department of Energy. However, the industry has recently come under fire as concerns over the sustainability of the turbines themselves has been put into question.

On average, 85-90% of a wind turbines’ total mass can be recycled according to industry body WindEurope. Most of the turbine materials such as steel, cement, copper wire, electronics and gearing already have established recycling circles.

There is an industry push towards recycling but blades proving tough

Blades have proven to be trickier to recycle. The composite materials that make up a wind turbine blade, in particular glass fibre, help boost the performance of wind turbines but are complex and expensive to break down and reuse.

There has been a push within the industry to address the blade recycling problem, with many initiatives announces over the past year to fund innovation such as the Innovation Fund Denmark’s DecomBlades and the cross-sectoral Zero wastE Blade ReseArch (ZEBRA) consortium.

Top industry players are also developing their own solutions to the sustainability issue. Vestas (VWS:CO), a top wind turbine manufacturer, announced in January 2020 that it aims to produce ‘zero-waste’ turbines by 2040, while American manufacturer General Electric (NYSE:GE) announced it was teaming up with cement giant LafargeHolcim (HOLN.SW) to explore new ways of recycling wind blades such as using 3D-printed concrete bases.

The wind industry must become operationally sustainable

In order to stay on track to achieve net zero by 2050 and limit global warming in line with the Paris Agreement to 1.5 degrees Celsius, GWEC estimates that the wind industry will need to install at least 390 GW of new wind power capacity per year by 2030.

This massive scaling up means there is an urgency to rapidly develop more sustainable solutions that can limit the overall environmental impact of the sector as more and more wind turbines are installed across the world.

Marc Becker, CEO of the Siemens Gamesa offshore business unit. “We are committed to making disruptive technology innovation commercially viable with the pace that the climate emergency demands”.

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