Study examines how to turn old wind turbine blades into circular economy gold



The UK government should work with businesses in the wind energy sector to bring about increased investment and support the development of wind turbine blade recycling capacity.

This would help to bring a zero-carbon, zero-waste approach to the offshore wind sector that could, in turn, extend the sector’s UK job creation targets by 30 per cent, creating an extra 20,000 jobs, according to a new report.

The report, released last week - Sustainable Decommissioning - Wind Turbine Blade Recycling - examines alternatives to landfill and incineration for end-of-life wind turbine blades.

It was produced by the Energy Transition Alliance (ETA), a partnership between the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult and OGTC, with input from experts at the National Composites Centre (NCC) and the University of Leeds.

It is estimated that the global offshore wind industry will need to decommission 85GW of capacity, including 325,000 blades, by mid-century. To-date, blade recycling efforts have been hampered by a failure to match recovered materials to supply chain needs and end-products, leading experts to emphasise the need to create a future supply chain for recyclates.

Technically, wind turbines are almost 85 to 90 per cent recyclable, but their blades, made from composites of resins and fibres, have proven challenging to break down, process, and recycle. However, the report identifies 14 technologies that show promise for recovering blade materials, but which require further work before being deployed at scale, with a particular focus required on reducing environmental impacts and optimising the energy use and cost efficiency of techniques such as pyrolysis.

The report emphasises the need for cross-sector investment, noting that the wind sector alone accounts for just nine per cent of the global composites market, with the remainder used by industries such as aerospace, automotive, oil and gas, defence, and leisure.

It also examines the potential economic benefits of expanding wind turbine blade recycling capacity, concluding that recycling of all major components has the potential to generate an additional 5,000 UK offshore wind sector jobs.

However, a more advanced circular economy model that brings in services such as remanufacturing and refurbishment of turbines and components could create 20,000 extra jobs, an increase of a third on the UK government's current 2030 targets.

ORE Catapult director of operational performance Chris Hill described the UK as being "on the cusp of a break-through composites recycling solution".

"The technologies exist, but to be viable, they require intensified investment and some new approaches to studying and addressing the remaining innovation challenges," Hill said. "Engagement with the UK supply chain is the first step for us -  recycling is only of benefit when the recovered materials have saleable end-products that prevent deployment of virgin materials."

The study is the latest output from the Energy Transition Alliance's Blade Recycling Project, which is targeting an at-scale demonstration of blade recycling within five years. The next phase will assess glass fibre recycling processes in order to identify the "best" potential solutions for further study and demonstration, the body said.