Thirty years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that offshore wind power could generate enough electricity to supply every home in Britain. Today that ambition, fuelled as ever by the passion of sector pioneers to forge an alternative to fossil fuels and make renewable energy a commercial reality, is at the heart of the UK government's climate change policy.
But as this massive potential for clean-power production and domestic supply chain development takes shape, and the industry becomes still more competitive with incumbent fossil-powered sources, what is less discussed is what to do with our first-generation offshore turbines, many now approaching the end of their engineered-for lifetimes.
These turbines represent both a source of vital experience for increasing the sustainability of their successors and a chance for businesses to create a spin-off circular economy that will address the decommissioning challenges. Last year, Vestas was the first OEM to pledge zero-waste turbines by 2040, and industry sustainability projects, already growing in number, underline the rapidly progressing trend.
The environmental imperative to adopt circular economy practices is well documented: reduce the use of virgin materials; move to more sustainable and recyclable sources; and ensure components live longer lives – and even second lives as refurbished, reused or remanufactured parts.
But how this can dovetail beautifully into the UK’s post-Covid recovery is only just entering mainstream thinking. There is work to do, however, to address the low awareness among policymakers and business of the scale of the opportunity.
An offshore wind turbine is theoretically 85-90% recyclable, but blades – made of composite resins and fibres – are the final major hurdle to full recyclability. The opportunity for the UK goes far beyond just recycling, though: there is the lifetime extension of components through refurbishment, reuse and remanufacturing, as well as designing out waste and tough-to-recycle materials from the start.
We estimate that by 2050, the industry will need to decommission as much as 85GW of offshore wind capacity – translating to 325,000 blades. Even if this number does not take into account innovation that would extend the service life of turbines at sea, it provides an idea of the scale of the circular economy opportunity.
This brings us to the golden supply chain opportunity for the next decade: a spin-off circular economy from the wind sector that would spark next-generation energy supply chain technology and lead to market-changing job creation.
Through the Energy Transition Alliance Blade Recycling Project and the recently initiated Circular Economy in the Wind Sector joint industry project, we are hatching an action plan to address the emerging market and engage suppliers in offering solutions.
We are also leading research and development on the technology challenges that need to be resolved for these solutions to make ‘environmental sense’ (that is, without causing by-product pollution or being energy-intensive).
And that will allow for cross-sector collaboration among sectors that are working on their own sustainability challenges through the UK’s National Composites Centre.
There are few UK companies in the blade recycling game currently, but that is set to change as publicity mounts around the industry's ever-more ambitious sustainability targets and the economic prize that presents.
Stand-out companies we have worked with include Renewable Parts, ACT Blade and Greenspur – which also feature in a new film we have produced to inspire UK technology developers.
As the demand grows for refurbished components, new-age blade designs and greener, rare earth-free turbine generators, we must ensure that the UK supply chain is poised to reap the golden economic opportunity of being the world’s go-to circular economy location.
With increased investment for supply chain innovation in the coming years, we can pioneer a zero-waste industry, and that is our next big engineering adventure.
· Chris Hill is operational performance director at the UK’s Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult