Today an increasing number of wind farms in Europe are reaching the end of their lifespan. In 2016, Europe had over 4,000 offshore wind turbines operating across 11 countries, making a total of 15.8 GW of installed and grid-connected capacity.
Turbines older than 20 years
In 2017 alone 15,638MW was installed and 640MW was decommissioned according to Wind Europe.
Here, in 2016 was the situation in Germany, Denmark, Spain and the UK as follows:
- In 2016, roughly 3400 wind turbines had exceeded 20 years of operational life in Germany.
- The situation in Denmark is similar with 1250 turbines being older than 20 years in 2016.
- More than 500 turbines had completed their 20-year lifetime in Spain in 2016, and this will increase to more than 4200 turbines in 2020.
- In the UK only 19 onshore wind farms have exceeded 20 years of operation as of November 2016: of these eleven are still in operation (through lifetime extension), two were decommissioned, and five projects were re-powered. No public information was available for the one remaining wind farm. In total fourteen repowering projects have been completed or approved in the UK since 2010. Also see Figure 1.
Life extension and decommissioning options available
Here are few of the options available to operators:
- Extend the life of existing equipment
- Replace existing equipment
- The second hand market
- Dumping it
- Recycling the components
Extend the life of existing equipment
In the case of the site, they can invest in extending the lifespan of existing equipment, subject to regulatory approval or replace existing equipment with more modern devices, since they already have the required operating and planning approvals, including being connected to the grid. The case for replacement is strong given that a modern wind turbine produces 180 times the electricity at half the cost of one built 20 years ago, according to the New Zealand Wind Association. The turbine technology has also changed. In the 1980s, a wind tower stood about 20 metre tall, its blades spanned about 17 meters, and it had a capacity of about 75 kilowatts of electricity. A modern tower can stretch over 100 metre tall, with blades that span 126 metre and a capacity of 7.5 megawatts — enough to power about 3,000 households. One of the world’s largest rotors has a diameter of 164 metre. Its 82-metre blades correspond to the wingspan of an A380 airplane and it produces some 9.5 megawatts of power.
Selling redundant turbines on the second hand market
There is a well-established second hand market for life expired turbines, for instance in many former Soviet Union countries, southeast Europe, Latin America and Asia. For instance, Dutch wind BV, a Dutch company based in Amsterdam, are brokers who specialise in selling used wind turbines. They source the wind turbines from around the globe. They sell a whole range of refurbished second-hand wind turbines range from 80 kW to 3.6MW including popular brands such as:
- NEG Micon
- AN Bonus
Currently, most used wind turbines for sale are found in Germany, Denmark, the UK, Italy, the USA and The Netherlands.
But resale market options for outdated wind generating equipment could change thanks to rapid technological improvement and as more wind power is added. “From year to year, more wind plants are being dismantled, and not every plant finds a secondary market,” German wind association BWE said in a paper last year.
Burying the blades in landfills is difficult thanks to toughening EU waste rules. Countries should resort to waste disposal, including landfills and incineration only as “the least preferred option.” New rules agreed to last year are meant to boost recycling rates and cut landfilling.
Europe’s wind industry says it’s unclear how a 10 percent landfill cap on municipal waste by 2030 will affect industrial and construction waste but concedes that disposing of waste through landfills or incineration without energy recovery are the “least favoured” waste treatment methods. Everything, except for rotor blades is very well recyclable” — Michael Schneider, spokesman for Remondis.
Wind tower foundations are made of concrete and steel. Towers tend to be steel. The nacelle — the casing atop the tower — contains gears, the drive shaft, generator and transformer (containing oils and lubricants) made of a mix of steel, iron, copper and silica. In total, about 80 percent of the complete installation can be recycled, according to the Bundesverband WindEnergie.
However, the turbine blades, are a problem. They are designed to be very light and very strong, able to withstand enormous forces without bending and breaking. To do that, blades are made from either reinforced carbon or glass fibre, combined with polyesters and thermoplastics. That strength comes at a price — such materials aren’t designed to be easily recycled.