Are Wind Turbines Sustainable?
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
One of the main advantages of wind turbines is that they emit less CO2 compared to coal combustion power plants. They do not produce harmful emissions such as nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide (compounds that cause acid rain and smog) which are also produced by fossil fuel combustion. At £47 / MWh, wind energy is cost effective, as opposed to other sources, such as coal, which costs £124 / MWh. The greatest advantage of wind turbines is that wind energy comes from a renewable resource.
Certain aspects of wind turbines make their sustainability questionable. The main issue is what to do with the turbine blades when they are no longer in use. Turbine blades are made of materials that cannot be recycled or are difficult to recycle, such as fibreglass and polyvinyl chloride (PVC plastic). Currently, blades are “downcycled” - they are shredded and used for filler reinforcement in cement or asphalt. But this is not enough, and predictions indicate the blades could amount to 330,000 tonnes of waste by 2028.
Research is on-going into new blade materials that are recyclable. One such material is Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL). It is simply wood glued in layers. It has great potential in decreasing waste from wind turbines. However, blades made of LVL are shorter than fibreglass blades and have weaker properties. To be equally strong, LVL blades have to be heavier than current ones. This poses a challenge in terms of cost increase and high material usage. This can potentially be improved by strengthening the LVL with a carbon composite.
It has great potential in decreasing the waste from wind turbines but still does not fully solve the issue, and further exploration is necessary.
Despite these issues, wind turbines are still currently viewed as the safest and most sustainable way of producing renewable energy.
Photo: Courtesy of DNV GL
By Tapi Taruvinga