The world’s biggest wind turbine manufacturers have committed to eliminating their net emissions of greenhouse gases, but reducing the carbon footprint of their production process may mean customers have to bear some of the cost.
Global players such as Denmark’s Vestas Wind Systems A/S and Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy SA, its German-Spanish rival, aim to hit an array of sustainability targets in the next decade. These range from building zero-waste turbines to reducing the emissions of their supply chain, posing the challenge of rising costs in a market where margins are already lean.
Unlike coal or natural gas power plants, wind energy does not emit the greenhouse gases that are responsible for global warming. But making the turbines needed to generate that power does. Wind turbine blades are made from a combination of fiberglass and resins that can’t yet be recycled in a cost-effective way.
Steel, another key component of the turbines, needs to be made at temperatures so high that at the moment they can only be achieved by burning fossil fuels. All of that that might lead to a market premium on carbon-neutral turbines, said Lisa Ekstrand, head of sustainability at Vestas, the world’s top turbine manufacturer.
“There will be a number of companies that will probably take the lead and will be willing to accept a bit of a higher cost for a more sustainable product in the short term, with the view of the costs coming down in the medium and long run,” she said, adding that sustainability programs ultimately aim to achieve costs “on par with today’s, or even lower.”
Major turbine producers are launching pilot programs to develop new technology and come up with cost-effective ways to make low-emissions wind turbines. Some initiatives underway include recycling components of decommissioned turbines as feedstock for cement production, redesigning the logistics network and switching to cleaner energy sources.
Towers are particularly problematic, because of the large amount of steel they contain. Siemens Gamesa has been running a pilot program with its suppliers for about two years to assess and improve its production progress of the component, said Jonas Pagh Jensen, an executive who focuses on health, safety and environment issues.
The program has cut CO2 emissions by 20,000 metric tons in Europe, the Middle East and Africa and has now been rolled out globally. “We’re trying to find out how fast can we move while remaining competitive, and the best way to do it is having an open dialog with our costumers to understand the pressure they’re also exposed to,” he said.
The company, based in Zamudio, Spain, is also working on projects to separate and reuse turbine blade materials. Although the process is not cost-efficient at the moment, “progress has been made, but whether we’ll get to a 100% recyclability is still to be seen,” said Jensen.
This approach can help wind turbine makers improve their potential waste recycling rate already north of 80% while lowering their emissions and boosting profitability, said Adeline Diab, head of ESG and thematic investing at Bloomberg Intelligence. “If you don’t have to recreate 80% of a turbine, it won’t be a like-for-like carbon savings, but it may contribute to a good portion of it, helping carbon neutrality targets.
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