Keywords: Wind Energy, Emissions, Wind Turbines, Turbine Blades, Veolia, Fiberglass, GE Renewable, Carbon Rivers, Recycling, Sustainable, Circular Economy, ARC Advisory Group.
Wind energy is expected to make up around 30 percent of the global electricity mix by 2040. Wind turbine blades, one of the most noticeable aspects of the turbine, can span up to 350 ft and have a life expectancy of about 10-20 years. These colossal blades are a large contributor in accounting for emissions in wind energy. The projected number of blades that will need to be decommissioned by 2050 is currently projected to be 43 million tons. Instead of these blades going to the landfill, there are companies and government entities that are interested in creating a sustainable solution. Companies such as GE, Veolia, and Carbon Rivers are currently pioneering the world’s first turbine blade recycling programs. The blades may not be the most toxic materials entering the landfill, but bringing them to a landfill creates a large obstacle to attaining truly sustainable energy.
In December of 2020, GE (General Electric) Renewable Energy announced a multiyear agreement with Veolia North America to recycle blades from GE’s US onshore-based turbines as they continue to develop their repowering efforts. Repowering a wind farm involves replacing old turbine blades with more powerful and efficient models that utilize the latest technology. For this partnership to be successful, Veolia developed a physical recycling process that uses the blades as raw materials for cement production, replacing coal, sand, and clay at manufacturing facilities. Silica, the main ingredient of fiberglass, was blended with other materials to create a fuel that Veolia found extremely beneficial and useful in its cement kilns. The main goal of this program is to redirect the massive volume of these blades from entering the landfill.
When a blade is decommissioned due to GE’s repowering efforts, Veolia cuts it down to 40-foot sections and hauls it to its nearest processing facility in Missouri, Louisiana. The blade is then cut down to 1.5-foot sections, taken apart further on a conveyor belt, and then shredded down to a confetti-sized material where it’s ready to be mixed. Compared to traditional cement manufacturing, blade recycling enables a 27 percent net reduction in CO2 emissions from cement production and a 13 percent net reduction in water consumption. In addition, a single wind turbine blade that weighs 7 US tons recycled through this process enables the cement kiln to avoid consuming 5 tons of coal, 2.7 tons of silica, 1.9 tons of limestone, and a ton of additional mineral-based raw materials. Last updated in April of 2023, Veolia has successfully recycled more than 2,600 blades.
Additionally, Carbon Rivers, an energy technology company partnered with the DOE (Department of Energy) to create a wind turbine blade re-cycling program. The company recycles blades using pyrolysis—a chemical process during which organic components of a composite (e.g., resins or polymers) are broken down with intense heat in the absence of oxygen and separated from the inorganic fiberglass reinforcement. The process converts organic products back into raw hydrocarbon products called syngas and pyrolysis oil, which can be used for energy production. This process can additionally recover clean and mechanically intact glass fiber that can be collected for direct reuse in the manufacturing of new products. Carbon Rivers has upcycled a few thousand metric tons and is currently building a new recycling facility that will have the additional capacity to take in over 50,000 metric tons annually.
Scaling These Processes
Originally created for decommissioned wind blades, these recycling processes at their core extract and separate fiberglass. Fiberglass is a widely used material in aircrafts, boats, cars, pools, water tanks, and many other applications. The global fiberglass market size was valued at $11.4 billion in 2020 and is on track to grow 4.3 percent from 2021 to 2028. Domestically, the US is estimated to produce several million tons of fiberglass annually. The scalability of this process can alleviate supply chain pressures and reduce the demand for virgin fiberglass which requires toxic materials such as resin and epoxy. In addition to the mechanical and chemical recycling processes, lifetime extension is another option to consider before letting the blades go to the landfill. Lifetime extension involves extending the blade’s life beyond the average 20-year lifespan, which would require additional maintenance, resurfacing, and lightning deterring technologies. Beyond recycling wind blades, if these processes can be scaled, the technology, opportunities, and reduction of waste would be immense.
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