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Unique partnership breathes new life into wind turbines green after-market

Wind turbine

Wind turbines are being given a new lease of life thanks to a partnership to refurbish and remanufacture components that may otherwise end up in landfill.

The operational lifecycle of a wind turbine is typically estimated to only be 20 years.  This means that many windfarms are now nearing the end of their lifespan and are no longer under the service contracts of the original supplier.

Legacy fleets can become increasingly problematic to manage as technology moves on.  As turbines age, components increasingly wear out, and a reduced supply of older generation parts compounds the problem.

But a collaboration between the University of Strathclyde and Renewable Parts Limited (RPL), a Renfrew-based independent supply chain specialist of wind turbine components, aims to help fuel a greener after-market.

The University’s Advanced Materials Research Laboratory (AMRL), which supports commercial projects across all sectors of engineering, and the firm, which has its main refurbishment centre in Lochgilphead, Argyll, have teamed up to identify parts with the potential to be remanufactured or refurbished.

The project aims to drive a culture change in the wind industry to reduce waste and the carbon footprint.

RPL were awarded a £9.5k grant from the Energy Technology Partnership’s KEN Engagement Fund for an early study to evaluate which turbine parts to focus on for further work, and became the first SME in the wind industry to receive Zero Waste Scotland funding.

The project also received £20,000 funding from the Scottish Institute for Remanufacturing, which facilitates collaborations between academia and industry.

The University’s Electronic and Electrical Engineering department analysed the company’s data to identify likely components which can then be sold back to wind farm operators after refurbishment. This provides a cost effective, environmentally friendly alternative to buying new, producing savings of up to 40 percent.

Engineers use root cause analysis to identify and assess why parts fail and to develop refurbishment solutions that can reduce future failure rates.  It may also allow better predictability of when parts might fail, enabling customers to plan inventory more effectively.  

Engineer is sitting at a computer

Dr Fiona Sillars, Knowledge Exchange Manager from the AMRL, said: “The components that approach the end of their operational life or have failed are refurbished, rather than being disposed of to landfill or steel recycling, and replaced with brand new ones.

“This project will drive change within the wind industry, provide new refurbishment solutions that will benefit the circular economy in Scotland, reduce waste and enhance technology acquisition and local employment in high skilled jobs.”

The team were also able to define a best practice for identifying signs of failure at an early stage, which means a warranty matching that of new, can be provided for the individual refurbished components.

Dr Sillars added: “Along with colleagues from the department of Design, Manufacturing and Engineering Management, the team has considered the possibilities of inherent weaknesses in the material used, as well as manufacturing and assembly issues like fatigue life – which is the ability of a material to withstand cyclic loads.

“Understanding how these factors interact will allow the company to provide remanufactured parts whose quality can be assured for further use.”

Other more mature industries like the automotive and aerospace sectors are far more advanced in terms of recycling, with levels of up to 97% achievable in the case of cars.

 Two engineers work on a wind turbine component at a desk

James Barry, Chief Executive James Barry of RPL, which counts some of the UK’s leading energy suppliers as customers, said the rising levels of unserviceable material from aging turbines presents the greatest challenge and opportunity for the wind industry. 

He added: “Material that is often scrapped and enters landfill, can with investment, re-enter the supply chain as refurbished parts, reducing waste and cost. We have invested heavily in refurbishment technology to return increased levels of component parts to service. However, it is crucial that this technology is applied to developing supply chains in the UK, close to the many thousands of turbines located here.

“The carbon footprint, generated through transporting these components to Continental Europe and beyond is substantial and we must work harder to invest in indigenous capability to reduce this impact. 

“The industry is obviously based on a green energy source, but the by-product of used parts to produce that power needs to be greener. There is a lot of scrap that comes off the turbines which ultimately finds its way to landfill in some form or another.”

He said that Glasgow is the optimum location to build the infrastructure needed and added:

“If you were to draw a circle around it with a 50-mile radius you would find there were more on-shore wind turbines than anywhere else in mainland Continental Europe.

“The tricky bit is how you deploy that to practical solutions which the industry can adopt and that’s where Strathclyde comes in.  It has the technical and engineering skills, as well as the close ties to industry, particularly renewables, so it was a really good fit.”

He says that the unique collaboration between RPL and Strathclyde connects theory and learning with industry, and added: “The whole premise is to reduce waste, cost and improve product quality. We take unserviceable material, strip, inspect and investigate to establish root cause failure so we can develop refurbishment repair schemes to restore the components to a serviceable condition.

"Going forward, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to say that the content of wind turbines should be 50 per cent refurbished and within ten years that’s where we’d like to go”.

The firm will move to a new purpose built refurbishment centre in Lochgilphead within two years and estimates its six strong workforce there will quadruple in the next two to three years.