Massive changes are under way in the wind turbine blade marketplace.
This has been spurred by three factors: the balsa scandal of Latin America, the accelerating emergence of the plastic material PET as a substitute and the critical need to manufacture a fully recyclable replacement.
The balsa scandal has been something of a slow-burn affair and had been forewarned.
In November 2019, the Financial Times warned that the 2020 wind farm build programme could be compromised by balsa shortages precipitated by a poor growing season that year.
Balsa prices had already doubled by the time the story warned of shortages.
What couldn’t be taken into account, then, was the impact of Covid-19 on leading balsa producer Ecuador across 2020.
The mounting supplies crisis led to the unlicensed pillaging of rainforest balsa from Ecuador and Peru.
According to Timbercheck, last August, a shipment of illegally harvested Balsa wood destined for China was seized by Peruvian authorities in the port of Callao, Lima.
About a week later, another shipment was intercepted at a highway control post in Churubamba, Huánuco.
It had become a cat and mouse game.
Timbercheck, which reports on illegal logging and prosecutions, has clocked that Big Wind is booming.
Wood Mackenzie analysts are forecasting a global wind turbine supply chain worth some $600 billion over the current decade.
Global balsa consumption by wind turbine manufacturers is still expected to remain well over 200,000 cubic metres into 2023 despite the growing use of PET.
“In the short term, it seems very possible that at least some of our clean energy will be powered by illegally harvested timber,” warns Timbercheck.
Woodmac highlights the changing nature of the core material used in the manufacture of turbine blades.
It says: “Blade core material balsa shortages have prompted turbine OEMs and blade manufacturers to switch to PET and hybrid designs.
“Wood Mackenzie forecasts the share of PET to increase from 20% in 2018 to more than 55% by 2023.”
Despite the Ecuadorian problems, balsa is likely to remain popular if it is cost competitive. As a crop with a cycle of just four years, it is regarded as sustainable and farms are being established in locations as far-flung as Papua New Guinea.
Whether balsa is totally displaced depends on a number of factors, for example, its operational performance versus PET, the growing vendetta against Big Oil which could compromise petrochemicals manufacturing and marketing, and the massive challenge of recycling blade materials, notably composites.
Big Wind sells itself on green credentials, carefully concealing from general public scrutiny the problems associated with recycling blades.
There is no such thing as a fully recyclable blade despite several decades of turbine manufacture.
However, the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) network may have cracked the problem.
Late last year, NREL said it had tested a blade that could be completely recycled.
Blade manufacture generally involves the use of thermoset resin, with the end product often ending up in landfills.
NREL found that switching to thermoplastic resin makes wind turbine blades more recyclable, and can also enable longer, lighter-weight, and lower-cost blades.
“With thermoset resin systems, it’s almost like when you fry an egg. You can’t reverse that,” said Derek Berry, senior engineer at NREL.
“But with a thermoplastic resin system, you can make a blade out of it. You heat it to a certain temperature, and it melts back down. You can get the liquid resin back and reuse that.”
But there is the question of what to do with the existing blades piling up now and into the future based on current technologies.
According to the Global Wind Energy Council, the industry has historically focused on getting more wind turbines up and running, with the decommissioning phase receiving little attention.
With the number of turbines due for decommissioning set to rise significantly from an estimated 10,000 last year alone, to 25,000 turbines in 2030, asset owners are already having to make difficult decisions about what to do with these old wind turbines.
GWEC admits recycling options are limited and “not satisfactory”.
“Currently, most blades are either incinerated or transported to a landfill,” it said.
“The only commercially viable recycling method for glass-fibre is using the material as a replacement feedstock for the cement manufacturing process, which reduces the carbon footprint of cement manufacturing by up to 16%, according to BloombergNEF.
“This solution is used by original equipment manufacturers such as GE Renewable Energy, which announced recently the first US wind turbine blade recycling multi-year agreement with Veolia North America (VNA) to repurpose fibreglass for cement production.
“However, to build a sustainable global wind supply chain, efforts and commitments in finding alternative solutions to decommissioning turbines are underway.
“For instance, Vestas announced its new sustainability strategy, ‘Sustainability in everything we do’, a strategy consisting of four ambitious goals, including a commitment to produce zero-waste wind turbines by 2040.
“A target like this will require technical and innovative capabilities to manage the current decommissioning situation, as well as to consider recycling from the outset for the next generation of wind turbines.
“Given the challenge in recycling conventional turbine blades, the industry is now exploring the possibility for a complete redesign and make new turbine blades fully recyclable through initiatives such as the Zero Waste Blade Research project.
“Finding a solution to recycle wind turbine blades is crucial for the sustainability of the industry and the planet, and will further reduce the environmental impact of the industry to achieve carbon neutrality.”
What is odd about the GWEC report is that, while it recognises the growing blade recycling challenge, it is left out of the conclusions as a priority.
GWEC failed to answer the question, when asked why that was the case.
Instead, it said: “Blades are the last big challenge that needs to be tackled by the wind industry to become 100% recyclable, with the wind industry committed to actively exploring new solutions and materials to make blades more sustainable and part of the circular economy.”
Published in March, the Blade Recycling Report by the Energy Transition Alliance, a partnership between ORE Catapult and OGTC, contained some scary numbers.
Today, 2.5 million tonnes of composite material are used in the wind energy sector and it is estimated that there are 12-15 tonnes of glass-fibre reinforced plastic (GFRP) per MW of power.
GFRP accounts for the lion’s share of the $75 billion global market for composites. In Europe, more than one million tonnes are produced annually, with the construction, infrastructure and transport sectors accounting for almost 70% of that figure.
When it comes to carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP), global demand tripled in the past decade to around 160,000 tonnes.
Wind energy now represents the biggest sector with 24% of the global demand for this material, surpassing aerospace (23%), sports (13%) and automotive (10%).
In terms of value, however, the wind industry represents only 4% of the global market (at £772 million) due to the use of low-cost, and often lower quality, carbon fibres.
Sooner or later all the above materials are discarded for recycling or dumping.
The report’s lead author, ORE’s Lorna Bennet, says of the British position: “At present, there are few UK companies actively pursuing this (blade recycling) opportunity.”
An apparently notable pioneer is Scotland’s Renewable Parts, a fast-growing enterprise focused on component refurbishing and reuse which is now expanding its operations into larger facilities to meet growing demand.
And it is encouraging that Aker Offshore Wind, Aker Horizons and Strathclyde University have just announced an MoU focused on using a novel thermal process for the recovery and post-treatment of glass fibres from GFRP scrap to achieve near-virgin quality glass fibres.
Developed by the Strathclyde’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, it is claimed the currently lab-scale process could deliver mid- to high-value fibres for potential re-use in sectors like green energy car making, boats, equipment for the oil and gas industry, construction and so-forth.
Back to Bennet: “Overall there is low awareness amongst the UK supply chain of the economic opportunity that blade recycling and the broader drive towards a circular economy in the wind sector brings.
“The University of Leeds, a contributor to the report, estimates that if we can invest now in the birth of a circular economy sector, the UK can extend its wind sector job creation targets by at least a third.
“This assertion is supported by research from the Green Alliance and WRAP (2015) that focused on the UK waste sector. They estimated that without new initiatives, 31,000 jobs could potentially be created in that sector in the coming years (relying upon energy from waste and landfill).
“If we add job creation based upon recycling development, that increases to 205,000 new UK jobs.
“Even better, if we develop reuse and repair of products and components, we can increase this projection to 517,000 new and higher value UK jobs.”
The report authors believe the creation of a blade recycling segment of the wind economy could extend the UK’s current job creation targets (60,000 direct and indirect jobs by 2030) by an additional 5,000 jobs.
“By adding more advanced circular economy approaches (reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishment, etc.) these targets could be increased by at least 20,000 jobs.”
Of course there is the small matter of compulsion, ie, making the industry get its finger out and at least become genuinely carbon neutral. Certainly pressure is starting to build, especially regulatory, logistical and socio-political.
To be fair, however, the wind industry is starting to shift from cost reduction to sustainability as large-scale decommissioning looms. But it needs to crank up the pace.