New life for wind turbine blades: a sustainable challenge for Enel Green Power
We cannot promote the growth of renewables without also keeping the circularity of every process at heart. To lead the energy transition, we need pioneering vision and we need to be proactive. This is why Enel Green Power is already coming up with ideas to tackle an issue that will arise in the coming years in the development of renewable energy: new life for wind turbines.
The decommissioning of the turbines in a wind plant does not correspond with the end of the life cycle of its materials. We can give those components new life, closing the loop of circularity and making green plants even more sustainable.
A new life for wind turbines
Wind energy is a renewable source that has seen exponential growth in its production of electrical energy in the last decade. According to the New Energy Outlook 2019 by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, installed capacity from on-shore wind will increase by more than 538 GW between now and 2025. Turbines have an average service life of around 20 years: according to estimates by Cambridge University, 43 million tons of material from the global wind industry will need specific disposal processes by 2050. This fact cannot be ignored.
Most turbine parts are relatively easy to recycle, as they are mainly made up of metal parts. But one question remains: how to dispose of the enormous amount of materials that are difficult to recycle, like the fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) used in turbine blades. This is why Enel Green Power is searching for sustainable solutions based on reuse, recycling and innovative options to give new life to the blades of decommissioned wind turbines.
At the moment, we can only partly imagine this challenge, because many wind plants are young or are now under construction now. Yet, today we also operate wind plants that are undergoing ‘repowering’ projects to extend useful life, resulting in spare parts that require sustainable disposal solutions, including new life for wind blades. While there are not yet any mature and globally-available technologies for the reuse or recycling of wind turbine materials, we are actively pursuing emerging technologies and solutions
“Tackling the ambitious challenge of new life for wind turbines is part of our mission. We cannot simply follow market trends: we have to anticipate them and speed them up, boosting the development and demonstration of more efficient solutions. Now we have to create new alliances to manage new cycles of life for wind turbines as soon as possible. Making wind plants even more sustainable is a process that we can’t do alone - it’s a system effort.”
- Nicola Rossi – Head of Innovation, Enel Green Power
Taking advantage of the global network of our Innovation Hub, initiating new channels and using disruptive approaches – in harmony with our Open Innovation strategy – we’ve started scouting the most interesting startups that might be able to help with the challenge of giving new life to wind turbines.
We are working on recycling: selecting and testing certain solutions in the hopes of developing a supply chain that does not exist yet, starting from the pre-treatment of the blades and their recycling, to their final use for different purposes and applications.
“Enel Green Power is leading the energy transition by taking advantage of the circular economy – that is, rethinking processes throughout the entire value chain, from the design of a plant through to its decommissioning. For the wind industry, achieving this ambitious goal will include finding alternative solutions for the disposal of wind turbines, to bring our energy to an even higher level of sustainability.”
- Giovanni Tula – Head of Sustainability, Enel Green Power
On our crowdsourcing platform, Open Innovability, we’ve launched two challenges to gather ideas and inspirations: one to find potentially innovative ways of recycling and reusing wind turbines, the other to explore the possibility of producing insulating building materials from decommissioned blades.
Recycling and reuse: two paths
The challenge of giving new life to wind turbines requires a multidisciplinary and multi-sector approach, integrating innovation both in technological development and the creation of new business models. Two pathways seem to be opening up: reuse and recycling.
The path of reuse involves civil engineering and urban architecture. Old wind turbines can be used for urban furniture and more. Depending on their size and characteristics, they may be able to be reused to build urban bridges, houses, and even small hotels.
But we will only be able to reuse some of the wind turbines coming to the end of their first life. So we need to come up with innovative approaches to recycle blade material: glass or carbon fibers may find new applications in boating, in the world of sport, and even in building insulation.
And that’s not all: blades are suitable for use as inert materials in the creation of asphalt and building materials with superior advanced features. Each part of a wind turbine can then become a resource that, after producing an inestimable wealth of renewable energy, starts to generate value in a new life.
We will keep working on creating a new ecosystem with different players, ready to work with us and put ideas and skills into play for a common objective: all-around sustainable energy, from the first to the new life of a wind turbine.