Renewable energy (Part III): Blowing in the wind

by Marianne Mokken | June 7, 2022

Driving on the R44 between Hermon and Porterville a magnificent sight greets travelers: 46 wind turbines1 turning at a mesmerizing 15 to 20 revolutions per minute. The Gouda Wind Energy Facility. It is by no means the biggest wind farm in South Africa. That honour is taken by the Khobab and Loeriesfontein 2 sister facilities which consist of 122 turbines2. What makes the Gouda wind farm special is the fact that the turbines are mounted on concrete towers instead of the more widely used steel structures.

History of wind power

Even though wind has been widely used for millennia to power boats and for other mechanical purposes such as grinding wheat and pumping water, the first known wind turbine to create electricity is accredited to Professor James Blythe who built a cloth-sail wind turbine in 1887 to provide electricity for his holiday home in Kincardineshire, Scotland3.

Wind energy has since reached several milestones. So much so that according to the International Energy Agency wind power has shown the most prolific growth in 20204 of all renewable energy sources.

Advantages and disadvantages

Some of the advantages of wind power is that it is cost-effective, creates jobs, is a clean fuel source, and that it is sustainable5.

One of the few drawbacks of wind power is the wastage it creates in the form of decommissioned turbine blades. Up to 85% of wind turbines can easily be recycled6. Turbine blades, with a useful life of around 20 – 25 years, are however made of a composite material made up of glass, carbon fiber and plastic7. This gives the blade various advantages such as being both light and durable, but this also makes it difficult and expensive to recycle. The question is what should be done with decommissioned blades? These blades make up 10% of the total fiber-reinforced composite waste in Europe8. Luckily humans are innovative and technology advances:

1. Pedal power9

Fancy parking your bicycle in the shade of an upcycled turbine blade? In Aalborg, Denmark decommissioned turbine blades have been turned into bike shelters. Nine out of ten people in Denmark own a bike and there are more than 12 000 km of cycle routes. Apparently, the saying goes that a bike is a Dane’s best friend!10 So there is certainly a demand for bike parking and shelter from the inclement weather because Danes cycle no matter what the weather.

2. Real steel11

By 2025, Ireland will sit with a potential 11 000 ton of decommissioned wind turbine blades. As part of a “Re-Wind project” tests are being done to explore the possibility of using the old blades as the main structural component of the Midleton-Youghal Greenway12 instead of steel. The Greenway is currently under construction and will be a 23 km long off-road walking and cycling route between Midleton and Youghal in Cork County.

Similarly, in the United Kingdom, decommissioned blades are being used to reinforce concrete instead of steel. Old turbine blades can therefore become an important building block in the construction industry.

3. Child’s play13

In Rotterdam a 1 200 m² childrens’ playground, called the Wikado Playground, was built from five decommissioned turbine blades that were cut up and reconstructed into tunnels, towers, and slides.

Elsewhere in the Netherlands old blades have been turned into outdoor seats and bus stops, and plans are also underway to use blades as part of the construction of a bridge.

4. Its all about the chemistry14

An American company has been turning fiberglass composites into pellets that can in turn be used for injectable plastics and waterproof boards for construction purposes.

A process called pyrolysis is currently being researched by a French recycling group. This process can be used to recover various elements from the blades, for example, synthesis gas that can be used in combustion engines.

South Africa

On 21 May 2022, Deputy Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Dr Nobuhle Nkabane, launched the Roggeveld wind farm which will provide electricity to around 49 200 households through the national grid15 . This will provide much needed relief for consumers from the ongoing loadshedding. But what about the older South African wind farms?

In 2002, construction of the Klipheuwel Wind Facility on the West Coast began16 and went online in the same year. The facility, then the first wind turbines in sub-Saharan Africa, consisted of three wind turbines with the main goals being demonstration and research. In 2016 the decommissioning of the facility started and one of the turbines was relocated to the Cape Peninsula University of Technology for training purposes17. It is not clear how the other two turbines were disposed of by Eskom.

South Africa’s oldest operating wind farm, the Darling Wind Farm, consisting of four wind turbines, came online in 2008. The issue of what to do with the decommissioned turbine blades is therefore still a few years away, but South Africa could soon face the same recycling issue as Europe is currently facing.

Stats SA report that South Africa is slowly moving away from coal as main energy source towards renewable energy sources such as water, wind and solar energy18. The 22 operational wind farms in South Africa contribute roughly 2 000 MW to energy production19and it is hoped that these sources will be developed at an accelerated pace in order to promote economic activity and investor confidence.

Apart from demonstrating that at wauko we are passionate about renewable energy and sustainable development, what has this article got to do with what we do? It’s not so much about what we do, but who we are. The only way the turbine recycling problem could have been solved was through innovation and the power of true and authentic collaboration. If you look at our mission and values, that is what we at wauko are all about. Our purpose is to walk step by step with our clients to solve their seemingly insurmountable challenges to their cash flow cycle. And that requires innovation and true and authentic collaboration.

Connect with us and let’s begin a collaborative journey together.




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