Insufficient recycling capacities for dismantling wind-powered installations

UBA study examines environmental aspects of recycling old wind-powered installations

eine Windenergieanlage wird mit einem Kran abgebautClick to enlarge
Old wind turbines can be dismantled and recycled in an environmentally suitable way
Source: Gabriele Rohde /

There are currently more than 27,000 installed onshore wind power plants in Germany. The 20-year funding period pursuant to the Renewable Energy Sources Act is ending for the first of these installations in late 2020. Depending on local conditions, older turbines can be replaced by more powerful and efficient ones (repowering). Their continued operation is also an option when technically possible and cost-efficient. An increased rate of dismantling is expected starting in 2021; however, there is little experience in the sector. An in-depth German Environment Agency (UBA) research project has investigated the state of the art, calculated waste amounts and considered finance aspects. The results show there is a risk of bottlenecks occurring in recycling capacities for the fibre-reinforced plastics in the rotor blades and risks for man and the environment if dismantling is unprofessional. In addition, operator reserves built up for dismantling may not be sufficient. Maria Krautzberger, President of the German Environment Agency, said: "The federal government and the states must act quickly to develop guidance for dismantling wind turbines. We need clear regulations on the extent of and methods applied for dismantling in order to protect people and the environment and to ensure high-quality recycling of materials."

The dismantling forecast calculated the expected amounts of waste starting in 2021. Average service life of a turbine was assumed to be 20 years and the possibility of continued operation was not taken into account. Based on these assumptions, dismantling would incur mainly waste concrete (up to 5.5 million tonnes per year) and steel (nearly one million tonnes per year), in addition to copper and aluminium. The existing recycling infrastructure is equipped to process these amounts but there is uncertainty with regard to the recycling of the rotor blades, for which the forecast indicates significant amounts starting in 2024 (up to roughly 70,000 tonnes per year). Recycling has proven difficult with only one facility in Germany that is able to recycle GFRP/CFRP waste. The study recommends consideration of whether the introduction of specific aspects of waste product responsibility for rotor blades might create incentive to create additional recycling capacities.

Wind turbine operators must create reserves for dismantling purposes. The study also calculated the expected costs for dismantling and indicates there will be considerable shortfalls in funding as of the mid-2020s. The funding gap is forecast to be over 300 million euros in the year 2028. The study authors therefore recommend that the basis of calculation be reviewed and that reserves be verified by an independent expert at regular intervals as to whether they are adequate and could cover expected costs.

The study also explores regulations that should be effective when the dismantling of wind turbines occurs. Environmental protection, occupational safety and health, and noise protection are high priority considerations. Expertise is required during decommissioning and the disposal of operating liquids and gases. Dismantling should occur in successive steps, with demolition or other procedures involving wrecking balls being the exception. Foundations and cable trays and runs must be disassembled completely whenever possible. Any sawing work done on site should be contained by housing, and dust-polluted water must be collected to minimise human and environmental exposure.

The many different existing wind turbine models and locations does not allow adoption of one standard approach to their dismantling. The study recommends measures that can be held to a high ecological standard but also further developed and open to all types of technology. It outlines the parameters and provides a point of reference for the companies and supervising authorities responsible for dismantling and recycling.

Umweltbundesamt Hauptsitz

Wörlitzer Platz 1
06844 Dessau-Roßlau

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