Friday 4 June 2021 2:00 pm

For wind energy to be truly sustainable it needs to be circular and re-use retired turbines

Dr Stephen Wyatt is the Director of Research and Disruptive Innovation, Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult

We are fast approaching COP26. It is now quarter of a century since the world first convened to agree action on climate change. At that time offshore wind was in its infancy with only one small farm located off the shores of Denmark. Few would have predicted that we could realistically target powering every home in the UK with wind. But that is how far we have come thanks to some extraordinary feats of engineering, major governmental investment and a clear policy direction.

Looking back, the UK’s potential to lead the world in offshore wind capacity was obvious. We are an island nation surrounded by thousands of miles of coastline and strong prevailing winds. With the sector achieving a two thirds cost reduction and a backdrop of positive government policy support, we have created a green and affordable success story to power our economy.

There is another evolutionary jump: offshore wind energy that is not just low carbon, but zero carbon and zero waste. When it comes to circular economy, the renewables sector must surely aim to lead the way – from the decarbonisation of maritime operations to end-of-life recycling of blades.

The sector is at an important crossroads: the first generation of turbines are reaching the end of their 25 to 30-year lifespans at sea and something has to be done with this legacy.

We estimate that by 2050, the offshore wind industry will need to decommission more than 10,000 turbines globally. In the same way the UK has innovated to reduce costs in wind energy, it is essential to ensure we create innovative solutions to create round trip sustainability for the materials necessary for turbines and bring forward new solutions for thermoset plastics and glass fibre.

The next generations need to be circular from the start, designing out waste, developing more sustainable materials and refurbishing old components. A supply chain that can do this will find itself the first choice of turbine manufacturers.

The UK is home to one of the most ambitious cross-sectoral projects in this area, SusWIND, which brings the sector into collaboration with other industries that use composite plastics. These hard-to-recycle materials are in everything from wind turbines to car interiors, sports equipment and oil and gas pipelines. In the first instance, we need to find a way to re-use wind blades. The prize, however, is to develop more sustainable materials and processes that can be used instead of composite plastics in the wind and many other sectors.

A circular economy must be at the heart of industrial policy for the coming years. The environmental imperative and the economic opportunity apply not just for wind, but for every industry we have.

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