43 million tons of non-recyclable wind turbine blades will be wasted by 2050
Despite its extremely limited infiltration as a world energy source, it is assumed that a rapid expansion of wind power will ultimately be environmentally advantageous both due to its reputation as a “clean” energy and because of the potential to contribute to reduced CO2 emissions. Recently, however, the austere environmental impacts and health risks associated with expanding wind energy have received more attention. Perhaps one of the most underrated negative side effects of building wind turbines is that they don’t last very long (less than 20 years) before they need to be replaced. And their blades aren’t recyclable. Consequently, it is expected that roughly 43 million tons (47 million tons) of blade waste will be added to the world’s landfills within the next few decades. That would be equivalent to the amount of plastics waste generated by four million people in the United States in 2013.With the first wave of early commercial wind turbine installations now approaching their end of life, the problem of blade disposal is just beginning to emerge as a significant factor for the future. Recent research indicates that out of the 43 million tons of blade waste worldwide by 2050, China will have to manage 40% of the waste, Europe 25%, the United States 16% and the rest of the world 19%.
Globally, more than seventy thousand wind turbine blades were deployed in 2012 and there were 433 gigawatts (GW) of wind installed capacity worldwide at the end of 2015. Moreover, the United States’ installed wind power capacity will need to increase from 74 GW to 300 GW3 to achieve its 20% wind production goal by 2030. To meet the increasing demand, much more blades must be manufactured, but also blades of up to 100 meters long are being designed and produced.
The blades are manufactured from composite materials, which are environmentally problematic at their end-of-life, since there are currently no established industrial recycling routes for them. Finding ways to manage the waste from the expected high number of wind turbine blades in need of disposal is crucial to harvest wind energy in a truly sustainable manner. The industry needs to develop better technologies to make wind turbine blades both environmentally and economically sustainable, such using of bio-derived resins and thermoplastic composites in the manufacturing process of the blades. Modular design and reuse potential should also be explored.
The problem of wind turbine blades highlights a general characteristic of our world. Although there is a mind-shift towards sustainability, and the wind turbines are definitely part of this new way of thinking, even the most advanced industries do not take into consideration the end of life management of their products. The evolution of wind turbines has delivered great results in renewable energy – unfortunately part of those results will be some million tons of waste that can’t be recycled. Renewable yes, sustainable no!
Once more, it’s time to expand the Extended Producer Responsibility principle both geographically (covering the whole world for the most difficult and hazardous products) and in coverage (covering all the types of the new waste that we expect to be delivered within next 10-15 years).