As China steams ahead in the global renewables race with its rollout of wind turbines, researchers have raised the alarm that solutions are “urgently needed” to recycle the estimated 12.9 million tonnes of waste these will generate by 2050.

China had around 335GW in place by the end of 2022 and is one of the many countries that have now pledged to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030.

Globally, there is more than 1TW of wind installed and consultancy DNV has predicted it could hit 5.9TW by 2050.

“However, the promising trajectory of wind power adoption brings forth a consequential challenge,” according to China and UK-based researchers in a recent paper published in Nature.

Namely, what to do with the deluge of waste that will be generated in the coming decades from both manufacturing turbines and decommissioning them at the end of their roughly 20-year lifespan.

By 2050, the researchers predict that the waste generated by China’s onshore wind industry alone will reach a cumulative total of 12.9 million tonnes. That amounts to roughly the weight of China’s monolithic Three Gorges Dam and 37 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers to boot.

But it could end up being almost double that, said the researchers, who put their upper estimate for waste produced at 23.1 million tonnes. That’s four times the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza – plus the Empire State Building thrown in for good measure.

Waste from older renewable energy systems is a growing concern as the energy transition matures. A 2020 report published by WindEurope found that while 85%-95% of turbines are recyclable, the blades are especially challenging due to the type of resin they typically use.

The waste generated is likely to comfortably exceed the weight of China's Three Gorges Dam, the second largest manmade structure on Earth. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Chinese authorities recently announced that they will set up a new system to recycle old wind turbines and solar panels, aiming to have a “basically mature” full-process recycling system by 2030.

Before 2025, most wind turbine waste will come from manufacturing, said the researchers. But by 2040, as a generation of turbines go out of commission, end-of-life waste will account for around two thirds the total.

Landfill and incineration are “technically feasible” options for disposing of this waste, but would demand huge swathes of land while failing to recover the material value of turbines – particularly in the fibres used.

Incineration would also generate huge amounts of greenhouse gas, somewhat antithetical to the purpose of wind turbines.

The researchers called for the development of “circular strategies” to reduce waste, saying that “modular blade designs” could make recycling easier.

The lifespan of turbines could meanwhile be extended by using advanced sensors and monitoring to help “timely and efficient repair”.

Turbines blades could also be used for things like pedestrian bridges and transmission towers, said the researchers, although they warned that the availability of blades will far outstrip demand in that regard.

“Viable, large-scale recycling solutions are thus urgently needed to accelerate the transition to a circular economy for wind turbine blades and composite materials,” they said.

Currently there are “no simple solutions” for this, with the technologies on offer for recycling components like glass fibre waste not yet commercially viable.

Recycling composite materials is a “cross-sector challenge” extending beyond the wind industry, they said.

“All the composite-using sectors and sustainability practitioners must work together to find environmentally friendly and cost-effective solutions for composite waste streams and develop new value chains for the increasingly large volumes of blade waste to close the material loop.”