Zero-waste turbines by 2040
Published on 11th of May 2020
Senior Director and Head of Sustainability at Vestas
This January, Vestas announced its new sustainability strategy: “Sustainability in everything we do” - a strategy consisting of four ambitious goals. One of which is a commitment to producing zero-waste wind turbines by 2040. As a first step, incremental targets will be to increase the recyclability rate of hubs and blades from 44% today, to 50% by 2025, and 55% by 2030.
Solid waste is estimated to contribute to 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Waste generated from turbine blades alone is estimated to be 43 million tonnes accumulated by 2050. With the global wind energy market growing 3% per year in the coming decades, turbine waste could be an increasing contributor to the global waste problem.
Vestas is the first turbine manufacturer to commit to zero-waste wind turbines, meaning running a value chain that generates no waste materials. Our target is ambitious, but necessary if we want to avoid even greater challenges in the future. Running a value chain that generates no waste, means that every Vestas employee needs to show commitment and dedication. A target like this, therefore, not only require technical and innovative skills but also extensive project management in order to impact and motivate every employee.
The zero-waste project is led by Peter Garrett in Vestas Quality, Safety & Environment and Allan Poulsen in Vestas Innovation and Concepts, working closely with the Sustainability department. I have met with the two of them to discuss the blade waste challenge and how we will execute on the 2040 target.
Peter and Allan, please start by introducing yourselves
Allan: I have been working for Vestas for one year. I am educated as a chemical engineer and have a PhD degree in physical chemistry. I came from a role as director at the Danish Technological Institute doing R&D and consultancy in chemical processes and materials. In Vestas, I work as a Cluster Lead for Sustainability and Advanced Materials in the Innovation & Concepts department. My focus is on the development and design of new materials and technologies that can support Vestas products in 5-10 years from now. Sustainability is often a criterion in our R&D work.
Peter: I have been working for Vestas for nine years, and I have a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in design and sustainability in the UK. Today I work as a Senior Environmental Specialist in the Quality, Safety & Environment department. I lead the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) work in Vestas, which is the best-practice approach to measure and quantify environmental impacts. We apply this to all Vestas turbines, platforms and technologies. Prior to Vestas, I worked for a global sustainability consultancy firm in the UK and New Zealand completing many environmentally-related projects in various industry sectors and clients, ranging from strategic studies to technical advice.
What has been your role in developing this target, and how will you be involved in the execution?
Allan: Together with Peter and other passionated colleagues here at Vestas I am paving the way towards the zero-waste wind turbine. I have been deeply involved in developing the strategy that is going to be introduced to every corner of the organisation. At the moment we are developing the baseline, which includes defining the challenges to the different departments including global procurement and service operations.
Peter: Along with Allan and other colleagues I have been working very closely on the sustainability strategy. I have been involved with both the carbon-neutral target as well as the zero-waste target. In terms of the zero-waste agenda, we have first of all defined what zero-waste means, and what our targets should be. In our current state, we are working on establishing the target and challenges within Vestas as well as develop execution plans so we can deliver on these targets.
What does it mean that Vestas intends to produce zero-waste wind turbines by 2040?
Allan: At Vestas, zero-waste means the preservation of materials and resources by means of responsible production and consumption (including recycling, reuse and recovery), without incineration or landfilling.
Peter: Yes, and we have two guiding principles that go with that: The first is to minimize waste in all levels of the product life-cycle, meaning everything we produce and sell. The second is to move up the waste-treatment hierarchy so we maintain the highest value of those materials when we come to end of life.
It is possible to produce zero-waste wind turbines?
Allan: Yes, it is, but we cannot do it today. We need to rethink the turbine design and materials, and we need to work with our supply chain. This is the reason why our ambition is not to make a zero-waste turbine in 2021 but 2040. We have started the journey - we have started to work with material development and recycling technologies, and especially re-considered the value chain in regard to recycling. In the future, we are going to focus on design and collaborations with our partners regarding our supply chain. I believe that, in the future, governments will come to demand zero-waste solutions from all industries. Our customers will demand it from us, and we will demand it from our suppliers. Therefore, we simply can not avoid this.
Can you give some examples of initiatives that we will have to introduce to be able to reach zero-waste wind turbines by 2040?
Allan: This is a global initiative. Everything from procurement, the design process, the production process, the single worker that is assembling our products, to our service function - every department, and every colleague need to rethink how to handle waste. We need to rethink our way of operating but also simply how we act in daily life, we need to change our mindset
We will have to look carefully on our product design, our materials and collaborate with our suppliers in order to reach our ambitions. For instance, if we ask the suppliers to supply materials with a certain amount of recycled materials in it, then we can catalyse the value and materials stream around recycling.
Peter: At Vestas, we are collaborating with suppliers, universities and customers within the development of materials that have an improved environmental profile or can substitute non-recyclable materials as well as rare earth metals. We want to improve the sustainability profile of our products in their full life cycle. The collaboration with our customers is very important because they own the turbines and the turbines are therefore their responsibility, but we want to give them the best possible guidance.
What is the average ‘lifetime’ of a Vestas wind turbine today? And what happens today when a turbine reaches its end date?
Peter: Typically, the average lifetime is 20 to 25 years which includes the point of installation to the point of decommissioning. But we do also see Vestas turbines that operate for 30 years or even longer.
Allan: Yes, and when the turbine reaches its end date, the owner of a wind farm has two choices: They can either repower a turbine or they can decommission the turbines. Repowering a turbine means replacing old components with newer, more advanced technology. This saves on any costs associated with re-siting (scoping out and assessing new potential locations for a wind farm) and the upgraded technology then produces electricity at a lower cost. To decommission the turbines means that the entire turbine is taken down.
What specific materials and parts of a Vestas turbine can be recycled and what cannot?
Peter: The majority of the turbine can be recycled. Materials like steel, copper and other metal components, which make up a large percentage of our turbines, are highly recyclable. Other parts, such as electrical components, cables and fluids, etc, can be recycled or re-used but to a varying degree. Furthermore, is it possible to recycle the foundations and hybrid-towers, which contain large quantities of concrete.
But if you take a 4.2MW turbine as an example, there are approximately 50 tonnes of materials that are ‘non-metal’ like the coatings, composites (glass and carbon fibre and epoxy resin), glue, rubber etc. Materials like that will require dedicated recycling processes in order to dispose it. Of the 50 tonnes of waste, around 75% of the weight is associated with the turbine blades.
Can you elaborate a bit more on the specific blade recycling target (50% by 2025 and 55% by 2030)? What is the recyclability rate today? What do these targets involve?
Peter: Today, turbines are around 80-90% recyclable depending on the turbine variant and configuration. The targets of gaining 50% recyclability by 2025 and 55% by 2030, are targeting the rotor, which means the blades and the hub. The hub is the component that holds the blades and connects them to the nacelle of the wind turbine. Today those components of the turbine are around 44 % recyclable.
As said before, the majority of the non-recyclable material is the blades. The composite materials that make-up blades are definitely our main challenge and, therefore, our key focus area is to generate value from the materials used in the blades and make them recyclable.
Why are the blades a challenge?
Peter: Blades are made from composites which primarily is a mix of epoxy glue and glass fibres. There are recycling technologies available that can recycle composite materials via mechanical, thermal or chemical routes. However, the issue is one of economics, recycling quality and scale. Presently few options are commercially viable and new value-chains need to be established. Blades are being reused where lifetime and quality permit. However, blades need to survive harsh operating conditions for 20 to 30 years lifetime, so by design, they are difficult to breakdown. At Vestas, we try to play an active role in creating a market for recycled composites.
Allan: It is also important that we have a holistic approach to composite recycling and especially that we don’t introduce recycling technologies that have a larger environmental impact than manufacturing virgin materials. For example, it doesn’t make sense if recycling of composites emits more greenhouse gases than new materials.
So how will we achieve the targets of 50% by 2025 and 55% by 2030?
Allan: We will achieve this target by being engaged in the whole recycling value chain. We support the development of recycling technologies as well as the development of value and material streams for recycled composites. We also work within material innovation that enables clever recycling of composites. Finally, we give industry recommendations as well as guide our customers on how to approach and handle this challenge.
And finally, how will we eventually produce 100% recyclable wind turbines in 2040?
Allan: We will do that by working systematically with our strategy which will lead us to a 100% recyclable wind turbine at a steady pace. It is going to be a really exciting journey with a huge impact on the industry, the society and on the globe. We are also aware that all solutions to reach the target haven’t been fully developed yet. Within Vestas we will need to collaborate closely to reach the target - this is a journey that includes the entire organisation.
We have spent quite some time on the approach to create zero-waste turbines because we know that this new strategic approach could potentially be the new standard for future turbines. Therefore, we frequently ask ourselves, is our approach simple enough for people to understand? We believe that simplicity is one of the key factors for our strategy to be successful. If we make the approach too advanced, we have chosen the wrong strategy. I mean, this is a must-win battle for Vestas, but it is also a must-win battle for the society and the planet. We need to act in accordance with the changes and challenges that we see.
If you have any questions regarding Vestas’ sustainability strategy or any of our targets, please do not hesitate to contact the Sustainability Department at email@example.com