In this episode of Unreported Europe, Monica Pinna investigates the latest controversy engulfing the wind power industry: the recycling of turbine blades.
For some, wind turbines are extraordinary pieces of technology and the answer to our energy needs. For others, they are a stain on the landscape and a threat to biodiversity.
One thing is for sure. A storm is brewing on the future of wind energy in Europe. The latest controversy concerns the difficulty of recycling turbine blades.
Residents of the town of Lunas and its surroundings in southern France want seven turbines to be dismantled from the Bernagues wind farm. They see them as an eyesore and a threat to the natural environment. Your group of residents, Collective 34-12, has been embroiled in a legal battle for several years in an attempt to bring down the turbines. The court case is still ongoing.
“We are not against wind power. We are opposed to placing turbines in areas rich in biodiversity. In Occitania, this is the case for about 70% of the region,” says Marion Valé, spokesperson for the group.
In early June, Marion asked residents to demonstrate in front of the Bernagues wind farm after the site developer won a court appeal preventing the dismantling of the disputed wind turbines.
“The Bernagues wind turbines are a symbol, a symbol of all the turbines that should be destroyed or dismantled in all the mountain ranges of France,” argues Marion.
Out with the old, in with the new
A large number of wind turbines will soon be dismantled across Europe. But only a small number of these will disappear due to local opposition from residents. Most are ready for a facelift and need to be replaced as they are part of the first generation of wind turbines that were built in the 1990s.
The process, called repowering, has started across Europe. Élisabeth Calenza, project manager at Engie Belgium, says the new turbines will be much more productive.
“It will double production. We will go from 2 to 4.2 megawatts per turbine. This means that we will triple the electricity produced. Let’s exceed 9,000 kilowatts per hour. This will supply almost 5,800 families ”.
Repowering means that around 5,700 wind turbines per year could be decommissioned in Europe by 2030.
While up to 90 percent of a wind turbine can now be recycled, the problem remains with the blades. These are made from composite materials that were designed to last, although they are not designed to be recycled.
What about the old leaves?
Most of the old sheets are reused. However, the number of blades out of service is forecast to be so high in five to ten years that the current management system will need to change.
“Right now, about 80 percent of all the wind turbines we decommission are being used as wind turbines elsewhere. That is Europe: Italy, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark. But the other 20 percent is recycled. That is because it is not economically viable to use them again. But in the very near future, I think that within two years, around 80 percent will have to be recycled because there is less space for used turbines and the newer larger turbines are much more competitive, ”he explained. Wim Robbertesen, Managing Director of Business in Wind.
Most of the blades, which are not reused or incinerated, end up in a landfill. This above image of a blade graveyard in the US has become a symbol of the darker side of this renewable energy.
_ “We don’t want these blades to end up in a landfill.” _
Only four countries in Europe (Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Finland) have banned the shipment of blades to landfills. The leading voice of the wind energy industry in Europe has called for a ban on landfills across Europe by 2025.
“We don’t want these blades to end up in a landfill. The blades are certainly non-toxic and technically safe for landfills, but it is a waste of valuable resources and is inconsistent with the wind industry’s commitment to full circularity that we should put blade waste in a landfill ”, Giles Dickson said. CEO, Wind Europe.
At this time, only a few facilities in Europe can recycle sheets. The technology is still relatively new and needs to be expanded dramatically. A Spanish startup, Recyclalia, takes shovels from France, Portugal and North Africa. By the end of 2021, they say they will be able to recycle 1,500 blades a year.
“We are capable of eliminating all the organic matter that is present in these composite materials, so that in the end we obtain the fiberglass and, most importantly, the carbon fiber, which is clean, so that it can be reused. We are working with pioneering companies in sectors as diverse as ceramics, construction and transportation, including the automotive and aeronautical sectors, ”said David Romero, Reciclalia’s director of operations.
The search for a fully recyclable blade
Representatives of the wind energy industry believe that calls for a ban on landfills across the EU will accelerate the scaling-up of recycling technology. That, in turn, will increase the demand for recycled materials.
Vestas, the Danish wind energy giant It insists that it is doing a lot to improve sustainability throughout the value chain, from design to manufacturing. The ultimate goal is to produce a 100% recyclable sheet.
“Our blades are today roughly recyclable at a rate of 42 percent, 42, 43 percent. So there is still a way to go. But if you ask me when we will reach that 100 percent, I think it will still take us a while, ”says Lisa Ekstrand, Vestas’ director of sustainability.
Rethink the amount of energy we need
The industry strives to improve production, efficiency and circularity. But should we ask ourselves how much energy do we need in the first place? It is a broader question than
Questions broader than Paris Interdisciplinary Institute for Energy Research (LIED) is trying to answer.
“We always imagine that energy must be produced at maximum performance, with the best possible efficiency, or vice versa, with the highest possible power. In fact, this is not what nature does. For example, when we move, it is natural to minimize the production of waste. An animal, when moving, wants to be as less tired as possible at the end of the day. Therefore, the key characteristic of an energy production system must be aimed at reducing consumption by trying to manage consumption differently. In other words, we should try to manage the way we function as a society differently, ”explains assistant professor Eric Herbert.
Perhaps this example from the natural world is the best guide to finding the right balance between protecting the environment and meeting our energy needs.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism