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The Lifespan and Recycling of Wind Turbines

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What happens after old wind turbines are decommissioned? In this article we explore the lifespan of wind turbines, what currently happens to old wind turbines, and new ways of recycling them.

wind turbine in the middle of its lifespan

How Long is the Lifespan of Wind Turbines?

A recent study found that, on average, wind turbines are designed to last between 20 and 25 years. One reason for this relatively short lifespan is the extreme loads they are subject to throughout their working lives. As both the tower and the blades of the turbine are only fixed at one point, they are acted on by the full force of the wind, which sometimes goes beyond what they’re designed to handle. These extreme loads, over time, increase the wind turbines’ requirement for mechanical maintenance. This repeated maintenance stops being economical after the turbine’s designed lifespan.

What Happens to Old Wind Turbines?

Landfills

Wind turbine blades are usually made from composite materials such as glass fibre or carbon fibre. Currently, these materials are both extremely hard to recycle and not as valuable once recycled; which has made turbine owners dispose of their decommissioned turbine blades into landfills. Due to their enormous size, they first have to be sawed through using a diamond-encrusted industrial saw to split the blade into 3 pieces. These smaller pieces can then be strapped to a trailer to take to a landfill.

wind turbine blade being transported after its lifespan
A wind turbine blade can be longer than a Boeing 747 wing

Up to 200,000 tonnes of turbine blade waste materials are expected to be filling up landfills around the world by 2034.

“The wind turbine blades will be there, ultimately, forever.” said Bob Cappadona, chief officer of Veolia Environnement SA.

Burned as Fuel

Geocycle have developed solutions to crush glass fibre wind turbine blades, and mix them with other components, to then use instead of fossil fuels in the cement industry. However, the energy content received from burning glass fibre turbine blades is relatively small and uneven. More importantly, burning fibreglass has been proven to emit potentially carcinogenic pollutants.

Glass fibre turbine blade at the start of its lifespan
Glass fibre turbine blade

New Ways of Recycling Wind Turbine Blades

Pellets

Global Fiberglass Solutions have developed a solution which transforms fibreglass composites into small pellets, which they refer to as EcoPoly. These pellets can be converted into injectable plastics, which are then used as waterproof boards in the construction industry.

Architecture

In Rotterdam, a children’s playground called Wikado has been designed using discarded wind turbine parts as seats, slides, ramps and tunnels. Furthermore, the architect of this project, Césare Peeren, is planning on using two wind turbine blades to build a bridge in Denmark.

Considerations for the Future

Despite numerous new efforts to recycle materials from old turbines, experts are now demanding that wind turbines should be designed with the goal of eventual recycling in mind. This would mean a reconsideration of the composite materials used, the size of the blade (bigger blades lead to bigger challenges in recycling), and the parts used to assemble the turbine.

To learn more about the different types of wind turbines and their advantages and disadvantages, read our articles: “What is Wind Energy and How Do Wind Turbines Work?” and “What Are The Advantages and Disadvantages of Wind Energy?“.

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