Vestas Takes Most Radical Step Yet Toward Zero Turbine Waste

Source: By Jeremy Hodges, Bloomberg • Posted: Tuesday, January 21, 2020

An employee walks between wind turbine blades at the Vestas Wind Systems A/S blade factory in Lem, Denmark.

An employee walks between wind turbine blades at the Vestas Wind Systems A/S blade factory in Lem, Denmark. Photographer: Freya Ingrid Morales/Bloomberg

Vestas Wind Systems A/S, the world’s largest maker of wind turbines, has pledged to eliminate all waste in the production of its machines by 2040 as part of its drive to hit carbon neutrality by the start of the next decade.

With wind power estimated to make up more than a quarter of the world’s power mix by 2050, installation of turbines will proliferate but with that comes the problem of increased amounts of industrial waste.

Developers will come under more pressure to clean up a manufacturing process that will see waste from turbine blades alone reaching 43 million tons by 2050, according to a Cambridge University study, or roughly the U.K.’s annual industrial and commercial waste.

Vestas is drawing up a strategy to clean up the design, production, servicing and end-of-life treatment of its turbines. The Aarhus, Denmark-based manufacturer said it’s the first among its competitors to announce a zero-waste ambition and aims to publish its plan within two years.

Wind Turbine Emission Impact

Around 80% of the lifetime emissions of a wind turbine come from raw materials and components

Source: Vestas, Bloomberg Intelligence

Calculations based on V150-4.2 MW turbine model. Chart shows contribution to global warming potential by wind plant component

“We have to make sure the strategy materializes in concrete actions,” Anders Vedel, Vestas’s chief technology officer, said in a phone interview. “What we do foresee is a change in some of the core materials that we’re using. We want to develop new materials which are biodegradable that can substitute the present materials.”

Despite turbine manufacturers being at the forefront of the energy transition, production involves energy-intensive processes such as making steel, cement and fiberglass. Historically, manufacturers haven’t included the environmental impact of parts that originate outside their business, but that may change as companies are forced to take more responsibility for their supply chains.

While 85% of Vestas turbines are recyclable, blades and hubs are made up of non-recyclable materials — such as carbon fiber, fiberglass and glues. The company has said that it will work with suppliers and partners toward increasing the recycling rates of its blades and hubs from 44% today to 55% by 2030.

“Design is often overlooked in recycling and circular economy efforts, but it’s extremely important. To have Vestas focusing on this will make the jobs of everyone further down the recycling supply chain easier,” Julia Attwood, a New York-based BloombergNEF analyst said. “Announcements are coming thick and fast in the circular economy these days, but the acid test is how much they’re willing to invest.”

Wind Turbine Suppliers GHG Emissions

Vestas greenhouse gas emissions grew 34% between 2015 and 2018

Source: Company Filings, Bloomberg Intelligence

Turbines produced by Vestas generate 30-50 times the amount of energy that’s consumed to manufacture the units thanks to gains made in how much power can be extracted from the most recent models, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analysis. Vestas said it plans to introduce a new process around decommissioning and work with its customers to reduce the amount of waste material being sent to landfill.

Earlier this month Vestas unveiled its plan to become carbon neutral by 2030 by slashing emissions across its business. It’ll spend the next five years investing in about 5,000 vehicles that run on electricity or other forms of renewable energy.

“Vestas has a responsibility to eliminate waste across its value chain,” Tommy Rahbek Nielsen, the company’s interim chief operating officer, said in a statement. “Wind energy will continue to grow rapidly, therefore the time for a conservative approach is behind us.”