The traffic light relies on wind power to ensure that the energy transition succeeds. But this brings with it a new problem. What researchers expect.
It’s actually a stair joke: Especially with wind energy The federal government wants to solve the energy crisis in a climate-friendly way, but this creates new environmental problems: Because the wind turbines, more precisely the rotor blades, have not yet been recycled and are therefore not suitable for the resource-saving recycling economy.
Wind turbines have been in operation for up to 25 years, which means that the first older turbines are now being scrapped across the country. Because they fall out of the promotion of the Renewable Energy Sources Act, the operation is usually no longer worthwhile for the owner. According to the German Wind Energy Association, there are a total of 28,443 turbines in Germany – not counting the wind turbines on the water. According to an estimate by the Wind Europe association, 80 to 90 percent of the components in a wind turbine can be replaced to recycle.
The rest of the old windmills, however, cause problems, confirms the federal government in a written request. In it, Christian Kühn (Greens), Parliamentary State Secretary in the Ministry of the Environment, writes: “Rotor blades are mainly made of carbon and glass fiber reinforced plastics. For these fiber composite materials, there are currently no recycling methods that are optimally adapted to the materials.” It is a “challenge” to bring these substances back into circulation.
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Wind turbines generate 15,000 tons of waste in Germany every year
The Green politician refers to a research report by the Federal Environment Agency (Uba) from 2022. In the 582-page report, the scientists write that they expect an increase in waste of more than 15,000 tons per year in 2030. The researchers predict that between 2021 and 2040, in summary, about 600,000 tons non-recyclable waste is generated. In a report for the European Environment Agency, researchers at the Darmstadt Öko-Institut even assume that the amount of waste from wind turbines in the EU will increase to 3.3 million tons by 2025 and to 4.7 million tons by 2030.
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It is also unclear to what extent the substances released when the wind turbines are dismantled are harmful to people. The authors of the Öko-Institut study write that the wind turbine blades made of carbon fibers in particular combustion processes become dangerous because they react in a similar way to asbestos. Researchers are already comparing the wind power waste with nuclear waste: “The nuclear power plants were also switched on without thinking about recycling, i.e. about what should happen to the life-threatening waste,” says resource researcher Winfried Bulach. The recycling infrastructure must now be further expanded in order to properly treat the waste streams.
Climate protection: There is no hurry when it comes to recycling wind turbines
The economy still prevails no rush: The Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology (ICT) asked 49 companies from the fields of wind energy technology and fiber composite material disposal whether and how they recycle. Only two major manufacturers of wind turbines are working intensively on the subject. This is also confirmed by EnBW Energie Baden-Württemberg, which currently operates 270 wind turbines in Germany (as of 12/2021). “So far we haven’t had any rotor blades to be recycled ourselves,” a company spokeswoman told our editorial team. A company in Bremen shreds used rotor blades to make them usable as combustible and reusable raw materials. In addition, some manufacturers have projects with rotor blades made of wood.
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A spokeswoman for the Wind Energy Association told our editorial team: “The current path of thermal utilization is the only path that is feasible on a large scale.” rotor blades made of carbon fibers (CFRP) is difficult because they do not burn. Resource researcher Bulach says that the CFRP would have to be burned using an iron bath reactor or under pressure with oxygen, which is complex and expensive.
Opposition warns of “waste flood” from old wind turbine rotors
The CDU member of the Bundestag Fabian Gramling told our editorial team: “The traffic light creates the problem of tomorrow with today’s wind turbines.” The government urgently needs to think about sustainable disposal and recycling, otherwise there is a risk Germany “to suffocate in a torrent of waste”. The energy politician calls for technology-neutral funding for nationwide pilot projects.
What else happens to the wind turbines? A significant proportion of the decommissioned wind turbines will be replaced Eastern Europe or exported to Latin America, writes the Ökoinstitut’s research group. The ICT also assumes that many systems will continue to operate abroad. In the US, the leaves are buried in landfills. In Germany, when the EEG funding expires, the tower often remains standing, the nacelle and rotor blades are renewed – so-called repowering. The scientists advise that politicians should provide incentives or financial support to encourage industry to quickly build a recycling infrastructure for wind turbines. “The legislature must act, the disposal issue should be addressed at European level,” said resource researcher Bulach. Regulations for the wind power industry must be established at EU level, because the industry is responsible for its products.
Since some manufacturers are already thinking about disused wind turbines in the sea to sink, the traffic light coalition would have to act quickly. After all, 80 percent of the electricity is to come from renewable energies in seven years. To do this, wind turbines would have to be set up four times faster than before, with around 450 new installations per year.
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