COMPETITION RULES Turbine OEMs are being prompted to clean up their production as customers place greater focus on their supply chains
PRICE INCREASE In the short-term, wind turbine prices are set to increase as new materials and processes are developed and incorporated
KEY QUOTE When they increase focus on circular production, then it is because it is supporting their competitiveness in the long term
To a casual observer, wind turbines seem inherently green. The electricity produced is clean and they replace the need for fossil fuel generation. However, the production of the turbines themselves is increasingly under scrutiny. The use of metals, resins and wood, among others, in the wind turbine components need to have a minimal impact on the environment or face public criticism.
While the green credentials of wind turbines are appreciably better than that of thermal generation, every sector is looking to reduce its climate impact as much as possible to reach the world’s decarbonisation goals.
Up until now the wind market’s larger turbine producers—otherwise known as original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)—have primarily relied on offsetting and arguments about avoided emissions when addressing their own carbon footprint. But as wind power continues to expand and large volumes of older turbine components are decommissioned, the industry is now scaling up sustainability efforts. Investments in new programmes aim to bring down carbon emissions and the material footprint stemming from production and value chains.
Danish turbine maker Vestas, the world’s largest OEM in 2020, set a target of becoming carbon neutral by 2030 without using carbon offsets, as well as producing zero-waste wind turbines by 2040. GE Renewable Energy, America’s leading wind turbine OEM, signed a contract in December 2020 with the waste management company Veolia to be able to recycle wind turbine blades, which are notoriously difficult to recycle.
The timing of these efforts comes as the installation of wind power capacity is accelerating. The global wind industry installed a record 93 gigawatts (GW) of new capacity in 2020—a 53% year-on-year increase, according to figures from the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), an industry association. With 52 GW installed in 2020, China doubled its record from 2019. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden is aiming to double US offshore wind capacity by 2030.
If this expansion is left unchecked, it will result in a larger carbon footprint for the OEMs. The greater the number of turbines means a larger number of turbine blades, which is one of the industry’s major sustainability hurdles.
The UK’s University of Cambridge estimates wind turbine blades will generate 43 million cumulative tonnes of waste by 2050. And by 2040 the wind turbine industry is expected to be responsible for the second-largest amount of fibreglass waste at 230,000 tons each year, only surpassed by the building sector that will generate around 342,000 tons a year.
Part of the OEM’s motivation to clean up the production of their products and avoid sending components to landfill at the end of their life on the turbine is being driven by customer demand. Developers and project owners are also placing greater focus on their own environmental impact. “We see a focus on our own footprint as a competitive parameter and as an important part of our license to operate in the future,” says Lisa Ekstrand, Vestas’ head of sustainability.
According to Søren Juel Petersen from Rambøll, a Danish engineering consultancy, the increased sustainability effort among the OEMs is very much driven by a growing climate focus from big utilities and turbine customers such as Ørsted and Vattenfall, a Swedish energy company and renewable project developer. “Utilities are now starting to include the sustainability of the OEMs as an important factor when looking at potential partners,” Petersen says. Utilities have not yet formulated specific requests but Petersen forecasts that OEMs will soon be met by demands that focus on environmental footprint, CO2 and waste of their products in invitations to tenders and in contracts. “This is what some of the OEMs are trying to anticipate,” he says.
This is supported by European wind energy association WindEurope. “So far the green credentials of a turbine have not been the number one criterion for ordering turbines from a specific OEM,” says Christoph Zipf from the trade group who also sees sustainability as a “growing consideration for the future, alongside pricing, services and other factors.”
According to Ørsted, the world’s largest offshore wind power project developer, carbon reductions and circular production among OEMs is a vital part of its Scope 3 emissions strategy and also something turbine makers can use to enhance their competitive advantage. “It is our experience that when they increase focus on circular production, then it is because it is supporting their competitiveness in the long term,” says Rasmus Skov, Ørsted’s head of sustainability.
Among the biggest OEMs, only Vestas and Spanish firm Siemens Gamesa have publicly disclosed strategies for zero-emissions production and zero waste or circular production plans, and have signed up to the Science-Based Targets Initiative, which provides emission reduction support and guidance to companies ensuring each plan adheres to the 1.5°C goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Potential new materials that can replace steel—which accounts for more than 70% of the total wind turbine mass—and effective recycling methods for the wind turbine blades are still not commercially viable. Wind OEMs are part of research projects to help find new materials that are greener and easier to recycle. “This is an area, where new innovation and scale is still needed. We still don’t have large scale facilities where blades can be shredded or remodelled, which can pave the way for the solutions that are competitive,” says Thomas Buhl, professor at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU).
Rambøll’s Petersen expects many of the solutions currently being tested will make wind turbines more expensive but stresses that the utilities and investors are willing to pay for it. Vestas’s Ekstrand agrees: “We are still at the early stages of this journey, but we are seeing utilities saying they are willing to pay a premium for this. But looking beyond the short term, we expect solutions within a few years that are competitive with today’s prices,” she says.
Through their innovation investment programme, Vestas invested in Modvion, a Swedish wood construction company. Vestas is looking at replacing many of its steel or concrete wind turbine towers with structures made of sustainable wood. Vestas says the modularity attributes of wooden towers allows for the same heights to be gained by conventional methods, while transport of the large structures is made easier. The wooden towers will also save a lot of carbon-intensive steel, which accounts for 20-30% of a wind turbine’s related emissions. Vestas expects to reduce the emissions from tower production by 80% from using wooden structures.
“These kinds of investment ventures are an important part of Vestas’ sustainability strategy and are important steps in the search for new technologies that are competitive, says Ekstrand.
An important part of wind turbine manufacturers’ decarbonisation efforts is to prepare the ground for a new value chain and market willing to purchase the by-products from wind turbine blade production and other materials.
Several research projects are focusing on cross-sector collaborations, which include large groups of industry partners. A Danish cross-sector partnership called “DecomBlades” is seeking to improve the recyclability of wind turbine blades. Included among the ten project partners are Vestas, LM Wind Power, GE’s blade manufacturing subsidiary, and Siemens Gamesa. Danish engineering firms FLSmidth and Ørsted are also involved.
The project focuses on shredding wind turbine blades so the material can be reused in different products and processes, such as cement production. The project also aims at coming up with a method to separate the composite material under high temperatures, known as pyrolysis. By gathering actors from across the whole value chain the goal is to establish an industry for the recycled composite materials.
Lykke Margot Ricard, professor at SDU, says that bringing about commercial solutions would “demand even more open and transparent innovation partnerships between OEMs”—something the wind industry is not famed for. Ricard suggests that an important step could be a product passport for the turbines and especially the blades to show where the materials have been sourced from. But Ricard recognises the difficulty “because of each manufacturer’s unique composition of materials that are trade secrets.”
No information of blade composition, material or operational conditions is currently disclosed to actors outside the manufacturers’ loop. The shared knowledge is limited to the generalisation of glass fibres. “This illustrates very well the difficulty that a potential player in the value chain is facing in converting the wind turbine blades into new commercial products without having knowledge of a consistent and uniform feedstock for the production,” Ricard says.
Wind project developer Ørsted set specific demands for its primary suppliers, including turbine manufacturers. The OEMs should inform Ørsted about their own emissions and set scientifically based targets for CO2-reductions as well as using 100% renewable energy in the production of wind turbines.
“We focus our efforts in the first round of our supply chain carbon reduction programme on the most CO2-intense parts of our supply chain including wind turbines, foundation, cables, substations and components to reduce the largest amount of CO2 possible,” says Ørsted’s Skov. The developer also signed up for the global initiative SteelZero that aims to drive market demand for net-zero emissions steel.
Besides the growing pressure from utilities, Vestas’s Ekstrand also points to growing political pressure. “Today there is limited legislation but the new requirements from the EU increases the need to look at our own emissions and material footprint. Decommissioning practices and requirements are also starting to emerge in some countries, with which we need to comply,” she says.
France has recently adopted new environmental and recycling obligations for wind farm’s operators, saying that 90% of the total mass of the wind turbines—including 35% of the rotor mass—will have to be reused or recycled by July 1st, 2022. Germany has also put a ban on landfilling composite material which calls for new solutions for the thousands of wind turbine blades that are decommissioned every year.
With the expected increases in waste and emissions from the wind sector, there is also a risk that public resistance could grow, which could pose a major setback for expanding wind power globally.
A focus on sustainability is an important part of the OEMs license to operate and necessary to secure political and public support, according to Petersen. “Due to the resistance to wind turbines, it is crucial that the OEMs do not put a foot wrong. That would make it much harder to create further breakthroughs with wind as an energy solution,” he says.
This is supported by Wind Europe. “As Europe’s wind fleet is getting older and more turbines reach the end of their operational lifetime, sustainability and recyclability will spark public interest,” says Zipf. When it comes to the future of the wind sector, Thomas Buhl adds: “To be green today, you have to be really green.”
TEXT Anna Fenger Schefte PHOTO Modvion
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