Wind Turbine Parts, Materials and Potential Disposal Methods

Wind Turbine Parts Materials and Potential Disposal Methods

Source: adapted from Jensen, J.P. (2019). Evaluating the environmental impacts of recycling wind turbines. Wind Energy, 22(2), 316-326.

As a result of the rise of wind energy as part of the energy transition mix, wind blade equipment is estimated to constitute roughly 20% of ocean-borne multi-purpose heavy lift cargo. These cargos require specialized port terminals and specialized vessels due to their dimensions and the specific know-how required to handle the large sections constituting a wind turbine. Compared to the blades, some of the turbines and the other structures, such as the towers, can get quite heavy.

As the first generation of wind turbines was introduced decades ago, the replacement and recycling of these turbines have become a growing issue and concern in recent years. At the end of their 20-to-30-year lifespan, wind turbines have to be removed and recycled. Recycling wind turbines poses several challenges due to the complex nature of their components and the variety of materials used in their construction. However, efforts have been made to develop techniques for the recycling of wind turbines to address environmental concerns. Wind turbines consist of various materials, including steel, copper, aluminum, fiberglass, and composites. Efficient material separation is crucial for recycling. Technologies such as shredding, sorting, and magnetic separation are used to separate different materials. Specific technologies are available or being developed for the recycling of specific components of wind turbines:

  • Blade recycling: Wind turbine blades are often made from fiberglass and other composite materials, which, combined with the durability of these materials, complicates the recycling process. Some techniques involve grinding the blades into small particles, while others explore chemical processes to break down the composite materials. Still, quite a few windblades still end up in landfills as the alternatives often remain costly.
  • Steel recycling: The tower and structural components of wind turbines are typically made of steel. Recycling steel involves melting it down and reforming it into new products. This process is well-established in the recycling industry.
  • Recycling of other materials: Copper and aluminum are widely used in various electrical components of wind turbines, such as generators and wiring. Recycling these metals involves melting them down and reusing them to produce new components. Permanent magnets in wind turbine generators often contain rare earth elements. Efforts are being made to develop processes for the efficient recovery of these valuable materials while recycling wind turbines.
  • Reconditioning and reuse of specific components: Some components, such as gearboxes and generators, may be reconditioned and reused in other applications. This can extend the lifespan of certain parts and reduce the overall demand for new materials.

The field of wind turbine recycling is evolving rapidly, and new technologies and approaches emerge on a regular basis. It is also important to note that regulations and best practices for wind turbine recycling may vary by region. For example, some regions implemented Extended Producer Responsibility programs, requiring wind turbine manufacturers to take responsibility for the end-of-life disposal and recycling of their products. This can incentivize manufacturers to design products with recycling in mind.

Seaports are not only important locations in the supply chains for installing new wind parks. Given their proximity to many offshore and onshore wind farms, they can also function as favorable hub locations for establishing large-scale wind turbine recycling activities. The generated recycled material can provide an additional source for recycling streams within the broader port cluster, making the port more attractive as a material-sourcing location.