Amid the boom of Tasmania's wind farming industry, researchers have warned thousands of turbine blades could end up in landfill unless end-of-life programs are established.
That's according to a new study from the University of South Australia, which highlights the challenges of recycling the blades and warns Australia is facing a growing pile of wind farm waste.
In North-West Tasmania alone, at least 11 wind turbine farms have been built or are under development, all of which will one day need to face the problem of piles of giant, old blades.
And it's no small feat - on the West Coast, for example, there are 31 turbines spinning at Granville Harbour.
Each turbine has three blades measuring about 62 metres in length - longer than than the wing of a Boeing 777.
The study, led by Professor Peter Majewski, explains that the blades are usually made of either carbon fibre or or glass fibre composite material, both of which are expensive to break down and have minimal market value once recovered.
"The same features that make these blades cost-effective and reliable for use in commercial wind turbines make them very difficult to recycle in a cost-effective fashion," Professor Majewski said.
With estimates of global waste generated by wind turbines sitting above 43 million tonnes by 2050, a world-wide race is on to find viable solutions . Some European countries have already banned the dumping of used blades in landfill in the meantime.
OPERATORS OR MANUFACTURERS?
In Australia, Professor Majewski believes cost of recycling the blades compared to the low value of the recovered material makes it unrealistic to expect a market-based recycling solution to emerge.
He says that means either manufacturers or wind farm operators will be left to factor the costs of disposing of the blades into their operations, which would then be passed on to customers.
David Pollington is the chief operating officer for UPC Renewables Australia, a company with plans to build up to 122 wind turbines on Robbins Island.
He said the issue of disposing of products had always been a consideration in the 30 years he had worked in the energy industry, from batteries to tyres to solar panels.
"It's probably one of the more problematic areas for us, out of all the things we have to consider," he admitted.
"We've had a few people asking about it in our drop-in sessions, which I see as a positive."
The project is still in the approvals stage, and Mr Pollington said UPC had not yet chosen specific turbines, and did not know what conditions might be included in the permit.
He said the company in the meantime was looking at ways to make its entire operation sustainable, and that some manufacturers were doing the same.
Among these is Denmark-based wind turbine manufacturer Vestas, which supplied turbines to Granville Harbour. The company in 2020 committed to 100 per cent recyclable turbines by 2030.
Mr Pollington said it was part of a broader push away from landfill, which UPC would consider whether it was part of an approvals process or not.
"More broadly, I'm not talking about wind turbines, I'm talking about everything we use ... it's a bit of a hobby horse of mine. When we buy a piece of furniture, are we thinking of its end of life process? What happens to it once its finished?" he asked.
"Think of how many tyres there are in landfill at the moment. Or finite resources in smart phones - it's irresponsible to put that in landfill, and not economical.
"One of the beauties about all this is that ... with turbines, we're not talking about a toxic problem. There's a little bit of petroleum in the gearboxes, but all the other bits are inert materials."
The average lifespan of a wind turbine lies somewhere between 20 and 30 years.
For Professor Majewski, one of the important factors is making sure there is relevant policy in place to ensure these blades are dealt with even if manufacturers disappear or wind farms go broke in the meantime.
He said it was likely consumers would ultimately bear some of the end-of-life cost through energy tariffs, but remained hopeful that market competition between energy producers would help to minimise the impact.
"There will be some cost to this for everyone involved, but we have to accept that as part of the cost of producing energy in this way," Prof Majewski said.
"Without such solutions, energy options like wind and solar may prove to be no more sustainable than the old technologies they are aiming to replace."
Mr Pollington largely agreed that the cost of recycling materials would likely be passed on to the consumer.
"One thing which is really difficult to explain or sell to people is that they're a cost to every decision," he said.
"But I think ultimately people are happy to pay extra for greener energy and to know that there's an end-of-life process."
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