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designing new wind farms in a circular way

Cilia de Cock

Wind turbines have an operational life of 30 years. How can you reuse the components in the best possible way when the turbines are dismantled? In the What if Lab, Vattenfall works together with partner Dutch Design Foundation and a team of experts - including cepezed - on a design for wind turbines with a sustainable life cycle. Circularity is at the forefront.

fossil freedom
Electricity demand will rise substantially in the coming years. Wind turbines are crucial to meet this growing demand in a sustainable way. Working towards fossil freedom not only means that the energy generated is fossil-free, but that the entire life cycle of a wind farm is as sustainable as possible. This makes circularity important for the whole project: the design of a wind farm should already consider the potential reuse of its components after completion.

inspiring ideas
During the Dutch Design Week 2023, a start was made on answering the question: what if, when dismantling wind farms, a goldmine of raw materials remains? Several experts shed their light on the subject. Thomas Hjort, Director Innovation Offshore Wind at Vattenfall: 'We have the technical expertise for designing wind farms in-house. However, for innovative angles, we seek the creative brainpower and input of sparring partners who are given every freedom to come up with inspiring ideas that we would not have come up with.'

beyond recycling
According to Jacqueline Cramer, professor of Sustainable Innovation at Utrecht University, many people think of circularity mainly in terms of recycling, when in fact it involves much more: using fewer raw materials, for example, or actually avoiding having to use certain raw materials. Other examples are repairing a product or redesigning an existing product. Lastly, there is energy recovery through incineration. Circular thinking thus requires an awareness process within society, business and politics.

think and act
This requires not only a change in thinking, but also a change in action, because circularity is indeed more than recycling materials, Nina Vielen-Kallio, Project Manager Energy Transition at consultancy firm ECHT, also explains. Around 80 per cent of our carbon footprint comes from mining and processing all materials in general. When we reuse materials, it means we make huge CO2 savings because we don't need new raw materials. If we are able to reuse materials and products even multiple times, we contribute even more to that CO2 saving.

material transition
Professor René Kleijn of Leiden University sees the energy transition primarily as a material transition: from fossil fuels, we are moving towards the use of various metals such as lithium, graphite, cobalt and nickel. Materials needed for wind turbines, solar panels and batteries, among others. Today, almost all the metals needed still come from China, but there is a need for a resilient and stable supply chain, preferably from Europe itself. The war in Ukraine has shown how vulnerable our entire energy supply is. 'For a renewable energy system, it is important to work on a standard supply of solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries in the next 30 years,' Kleijn said.

'green' steel
Turbines consist of roughly 80 per cent steel. Turbine builder Siemens Gamesa wants to make production sustainable by opting for 'green' steel. This will reduce the carbon footprint of wind turbine tower construction by at least 63 per cent compared to conventional steel, says Rob Kuilboer, Senior Technical Sales Manager at Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy. With 'green' steel, production processes are less energy-intensive and steel waste is reused. For turbine blades that are at their end of life, Siemens follows several routes, for example reuse for construction purposes or reuse of the fibres and oil released by recycling. The turbine blade materials from 3 wind turbines in Vattenfall's Hollandse Kust Zuid wind farm can already be completely recovered and recycled.

hard data
Joep Breuer, Wind Energy Scientist at TNO, comes up with hard figures: by 2025, there will be 60 thousand tonnes of wind turbine blade waste, and this could rise to 800 thousand tonnes by 2050. The good news is that circularity of wind turbine blades is now one of the requirements in the tender criteria of new wind farms, such as IJmuiden Ver. 'We need to think about smarter products with less material and a longer lifespan, and reuse of materials. We also need to constantly think about whether there are other ways to convert the power of the wind into energy. And that requires creative minds!'

That creativity will come from design studios Studio Carbon and Interactivist and architecture firms cepezed and Superuse, among others. They are used to thinking outside the box, learning from nature, reusing materials and working at the intersection of technology and systems thinking. Superuse, for instance, always works with a decision tree to clarify the hierarchy of material choices: first reduce materials to reduce environmental impact. Then look at what can be reused - renewable or bio-based materials and materials from recycled raw materials - before opting for conventional materials.

why, how and what
Nik Grewy Jensen, Environment & Sustainability specialist at Vattenfall, neatly summed up the why, how and what of the expert meetings that took place during Dutch Design Week. Why? There is only one planet earth and the resources are not inexhaustible. How? By setting requirements and ambitions, we have clear goals to work towards. What should we do? Be innovative, seek opportunities and make bold decisions to promote circularity. The key word here is cooperation. March 2024, the first results are expected.

credit: Clemens van Gessel, Vattenfall

Cilia de Cock
Cilia de Cock

circularity at cepezed
cepezed has been building adaptive, circular buildings designed as smart construction kits of prefabricated elements since 1974. Over the years, this building package has been broadened to include prefabricated building elements made of renewable bio-based raw materials or recycled building materials. Thorough knowledge of disassembly parties, materials, detailing, dimensions and performance is relevant from the first sketch. This makes projects complex, but cepezed finds that to be an enjoyable challenge. It leads to results such as The Green House in Utrecht, the temporary Amsterdam District Court (which was relocated to Enschede after its planned 5-year use), the Circular Centre in Heerde (built with parts of the Provinciehuis in Arnhem) and the Cultureel Centrum Oss (which partly consists of the relocated Zuiderstrandtheater).

cepezed and wind turbines
In the light of these examples, discarded wind turbines are a rewarding and fascinating challenge for cepezed. How can you sustainably transform such a specifically designed machine into a widely deployable source of material? Are both surprising and obvious applications conceivable? cepezed guards against an outcome that is merely a 'gimmick' of circularity. We strive for a high-quality (building) product and, in other projects too, is constantly looking for the possibility of introducing materials from other industries into the often somewhat conservative building sector.

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