Plastics: a fundamental pillar in the expansion of wind energy

Wind energy is one of the most important renewable energy sources in the electricity sector. Just in the EU, the wind power industry installed more turbines last year than gas and coal combined. The cumulative installed capacity is enough to cover 15 percent of electricity consumption across Europe, which is equivalent to supplying 87 million households*. When it comes to wind energy, plastic also plays a significant role. This is because most of the wind turbines currently in operation contain a lot of plastic/material combinations with glass fiber reinforcements.

Wind energy on growth track

Also in Germany, wind energy is all the rage. No wonder, since wind is one of the future-oriented renewable energy sources alongside solar, water and geothermal energy. In 2022, around 124 terawatt hours of electricity were generated from wind turbines in Germany. This corresponds to a share of around 22 percent* of total gross electricity generation in Germany. The German government has set a target of doubling the amount of electricity generated from renewables by 2030. To achieve these climate targets, it is necessary to build larger and more powerful wind turbines. With the “Wind-an-Land-Gesetz” (Wind on Land Act), which came into force on February 1, 2023, the German government aims to speed up expansion in the country even more: By 2032, the federal states must designate two percent of the federal territory for wind energy, by 2027, 1.4 percent of the land should be dedicated to wind energy.

Windenergie Dank Kunststoff Recycling
Bild: iStock | Massonstock

Wind energy systems are called onshore wind farms. For example, Germany’s largest onshore wind project is to be built in the Bavarian Chemical Triangle near Burghausen and will secure the energy supply in Bavaria in the medium to long term. There are also many large offshore wind farms off the coast of our seas. In addition, there are mini-wind turbines, such as those used by BASF, or mini-wind turbines, such as those used by EON. BASF is also building a marine wind farm 25 kilometers off the Dutch coast together with the Swedish utility Vattenfall, comprising 140 wind turbines.

Fiber-reinforced plastics indispensable for wind power

Many research initiatives are working intensively on the further development and optimization of wind turbines. A very crucial piece of the puzzle are the rotor blades, which are constantly getting bigger for greater efficiency. Every kilogram counts – because the lighter the weight, the better. The basis for this is high-performance plastic composites. Many of the current turbines consist of large parts made of plastic-material combinations with glass fiber reinforcement (GFRP). Whereas in the past mainly GFRP was used, plastics reinforced with carbon fibers (CFRP) are now also being used more and more frequently. By the way: Thanks to the versatility of plastic, it also contributes to the energy transition and more climate protection in many other applications.

Will wind turbines soon be 100 percent recyclable?

Even though wind turbines make a very significant contribution to the energy transition, there is still work to be done in terms of recycling opportunities. After all, the fixed EEG feed-in tariff for plant operators ends after 20 years, which means that a massive dismantling of old wind turbines is to be expected. As a study by the Fraunhofer Institute shows, there is still a need for research, particularly in the disposal of rotor blades, with regard to economically and ecologically sensible recycling. Wind turbine manufacturers have recognized this and companies such as the Danish group Vestas or the Spanish company Siemens Gamesa have already announced sustainability concepts to build waste-free wind turbines with recyclable rotor blades by 2040.

Headerpicture: iStock | TebNad



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