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Offshore wind in Scotland mapping end of life materials

Scotland’s renewable energy sector already plays a significant role in decarbonising Scotland’s economy and wind turbines are an important part of our green energy story. 

Offshore wind has become crucial in meeting the Scottish Government’s target of Net Zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045, committed in the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019, and with interim targets to cut emissions by 75% by 2030, and 90% by 2040 from the 1990 baseline.

Zero Waste Scotland commissioned the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult to conduct a review of the offshore wind industry in Scotland, quantifying the expected profile of decommissioning and planned future developments from the present (2022) to 2050.

The End of Life Materials Mapping for Offshore Wind in Scotland Report identifies circular economy challenges and opportunities, based on:

  • The estimate of the material volumes generated from decommissioning activity, 
  • Material requirements for future installations.

Renewable electricity generation was equivalent to 97% of Scotland’s gross electricity consumption (total electricity generation minus net exports) in 2020. However, there is a long way to go to decarbonise other sectors. In 2020, the energy demands of the heat sector accounted for 51.5% of Scotland’s total energy consumption, followed by transport at 24.5% and electricity demand at 21%. The Scottish Government has set a target to generate 50% of Scotland’s total energy consumption from renewable sources by 2030.

Scotland has nearly 2 GW of offshore wind capacity already operational and another 3.65 GW consented, with 2 GW of this currently under construction. The industry is demonstrating great confidence in Scotland’s offshore wind sector as significant developments are progressing without the full support of Contracts for Difference. The drive to achieve 11 GW of offshore wind capacity in Scotland by 2030 and 75 GW across UK waters by 2050 has created an unrelenting drive to develop high performance, next-generation wind turbines that will achieve the necessary energy capture and cost efficiency. Such a significant increase in energy infrastructure requires an equally daunting need for millions of tonnes of materials to manufacture the necessary components and structures. The UK’s industries currently depend on substantial imports of raw materials and components manufactured from all over the world.

Following COP26, there is no time like the present for wind and other industries to pause and take stock.

Pooling our collective experience and resources, we can achieve the feats of engineering that will make the energy transition and pan-sector circular economy a reality.

This report is phase one work to identify, study and determine potential material flows within a circular economy, to reduce waste, retain material value and generate economic opportunities with significant positive environmental impacts. The challenge of finding good solutions for decommissioning and reusing these materials in the coming decades is already becoming an urgent challenge for the onshore wind sector as the first generation of wind farms come to the end of their service life.

85-90% of a turbine is technically recyclable; however, no large-scale wind farm decommissioning has put that theory to the test in the UK. To fully satisfy the sector’s future growth plans and sustainability goals, finding the right solution for reducing waste, refurbishing components and recycling materials is imperative.

By 2050, it is currently estimated that up to 492 turbines will be decommissioned in Scotland and this is expected to generate approximately 1.5 - 2.4 million tonnes of materials.

Due to the magnitude of the material requirements to meet the 2050 turbine build out targets recycling is of key importance, not just with material requirements, but in reduction of carbon emissions.

Climate benefit

From a carbon reduction point of view, analysis shows that steel (including foundations) represents 90% of the total mass of a wind turbine and contributes 82% to the total greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE). The potential carbon saving by using recycled steel combined with small contributions of copper and castiron, is estimated to offer up to 34% reduction in GHGE.

This report sets out the huge opportunity for the supply chain in designing solutions to tackle the circular economy challenge and capture a global market that encompasses the decommissioning of up to 85 GW of offshore wind capacity (cumulatively and assuming a 25-year lifecycle) by 2050, in addition to 1,200 GW of onshore wind. Moving turbines towards zero waste provides significant opportunities for the supply chain through refurbishment and life extension, remanufacturing, reuse, repowering and upgrading of components, before we even begin to consider recycling raw materials.

Future jobs

If realised, the University of Leeds estimates that a circular economy from offshore wind in the UK could extend the current UK Government projection of 100,000 jobs within the sector by 2030 [13] by an additional 5,000 jobs in areas of life extension and remanufacturing alone, and up to 20,000 jobs within a full circular economy supply chain.

There are many reasons for optimism in the many techniques and technologies that are already being trialed in this area. Collaboration between the wind and other sectors will be crucial to accelerating circular economy technologies and supply chains. It is an exciting prospect to take this forward with industry partners and show how the wind turbine, the workhorse of the clean energy revolution, will take its next steps towards circularity.

Sustainable decommissioning: wind turbine blade recycling.

You may be interested in reading the report from phase 1 of the Energy Transition Alliance Blade Recycling Project. The report sets out the huge opportunity for the UK supply chain in designing solutions to tackle the recycling challenge and capturing a global market that encompasses 2.5 million tonnes of composites already in use in the wind energy sector. Many of the recycling technologies discussed in the report show promise in terms of the quality of recovered materials. Recycling is just the start. Moving turbines towards zero waste will be the next opportunity for the UK supply chain through remanufacturing, reuse, repowering and upgrading of components too.

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