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Wind Energy: A Sustainable Renaissance?

Materials.Business Newsletter ⚙️ July 03d, 2024


The History of Wind Energy

Seven thousand years ago, boats navigated along the Nile River using the power of the wind. Over time, water pumping and food milling techniques spread from China to Europe through Central Asia, carrying with them the echoes of Don Quixote’s battles against giant enemies in the famous Spanish novel. The Second Industrial Revolution introduced wind electricity generators, which were later overshadowed by oil. However, the 1970s oil crisis reignited interest in wind energy generation as a viable option.
Europe, heavily reliant on foreign energy, embraced wind energy farms, particularly in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Despite environmental challenges, the 1990s witnessed the consolidation of wind energy’s renaissance. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 1990, 16 countries collectively generated 3,600 GWh of wind electricity. By 2019, this number had surged to 1.42 million GWh across 127 countries. China led the charge, accounting for 39% of onshore and 28% of offshore installations.

The wind energy sector experienced explosive growth, with a record 53% increase in installations in 2019 compared to the previous year. Onshore wind farms flourished in the Asia Pacific, North America, and Latin America. Meanwhile, offshore installations gained momentum. Globally, offshore wind capacity constituted 4.8% of the total cumulative capacity, with key players including China, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Germany, Portugal, the USA, and South Korea.

Looking ahead

The global wind energy market is projected to grow by 4% annually, adding over 469 GW of capacity in the next five years. Technological advancements are driving progress. For instance, a Chinese company recently unveiled a 16 MW wind turbine capable of producing 80 GWh annually—enough to power more than 20,000 households. This turbine’s impressive dimensions—264 meters in height, 118 meters blade length, and a 242-meter rotor diameter—highlight the industry’s commitment to sustainability.

Offshore facilities, benefiting from coherent and abundant wind regimes, offer a promising alternative.
In Europe, countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Portugal boast over 100 offshore wind farms. Notably, the U.S. government aims to accelerate offshore wind projects, targeting 30,000 MW by the end of this decade and creating 44,000 direct jobs. New York’s decision to establish a $20 million offshore wind training institute underscores the sector’s importance.

Newer and improved designs like the so-called “wind turbine wall” or the “kinetic wall,” made of an elegant array of rotary blades, driving an electricity generator. Another innovation concerns a vertical axis wind turbine or a wind energy generator without the long blades well known to most of us. Moreover, the most effective alternative to terrestrial installations today is offshore facilities exposed to more coherent and abundant wind regimes mentioned earlier. This is the example of some European countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Portugal) with more than 100 offshore wind farms.

South Fork Wind, consists of 12 turbines located 35 miles east of Montauk Point, NY, it's the biggest offshore windfarm in USA. Furthermore, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has made significant strides in advancing offshore wind energy. As part of the Biden-Harris administration’s goal to deploy 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind capacity by 2030, BOEM recently finalized three Wind Energy Areas (WEAs) offshore Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. These areas were developed following extensive engagement with states, Tribes, local residents, ocean users, federal government partners, and the public.

Additionally, BOEM announced a new five-year offshore wind lease schedule, which includes up to 12 potential offshore wind energy lease sales through 2028. These lease sales are anticipated in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, Pacific, and the waters offshore U.S. territories. The schedule outlines four potential offshore lease sales in 2024, one each in 2025 and 2026, and two in 2027 and 20282

Polluting Giants - is the solution really sustainable?

Now, with the energy transition and the decarbonization of the economy, wind energy is once again becoming a powerful tool. Besides, sustainability issues generated by the wind energy industry are rising too. Regions with experience of more than 40 years dealing with giant aero generators are in front of some serious problems. This is the case in Europe, where social rejection has become an increasingly important political issue. Facts concerning visual impact, the negative effect on the landscape, the risk of accidents for births, and noise contamination are themes under constant consideration. As a result, all regions increased new onshore installations, except only three regions, Europe included.

Conventional wind farms are considered initially, moving most of the environmental effects from the land to the ocean and increasing them in some instances. This is the case with corrosion problems and assets integrity, which intensify because of the new severe marine environmental conditions and other infrastructure such as submarine cable connections.

Corrosionists have the advantage of some decades dealing with O&G offshore engineering. Further innovation must be arriving. For example, less invasive installations as floating wind farms are being developed. But many problems have not yet been solved concerning the integration of material handling in the Circular Economy guidelines. The expected wind farm wastes for 2050 could be over 43 million tons. 


The starting point could be the lifespan design of the generator, including foundation, turbine, blades, and all the other structural and functional parts and components. Current designs for onshore installations are for 20–30 years. This is the reason for the growing trouble with old equipment in the USA and Europe right now. Around 12.000 blades have been disposed of yearly. Palliative solutions for the long and strong old blades have included buried cemeteries and reuse in construction structures (e.g., roofs of bus stops and bicycle garages). The second-hand market for less developed countries is another option, but how safe is it? Recycling is a good option. This is the proposal by Ventos Metódicos, a Portugal-based company transforming wind blades into several kinds of furniture like chairs, tables, lamps, shelves, etc. One more proposal is presented by the Spaniard start-up Reciclalia, a company supported by the National Center for Metallurgical Research in Madrid, devoted to decommissioning wind farms, including glass and carbon fiber recovery from the blades. However the true circularity is achieved when the resin and the fiber are separated, and that is what Carbon Rivers is achieving. The company leading efforts to separate the resin and fibers from decommissioned wind turbine blades, using an innovative process that recovers clean, mechanically intact glass fiber, a crucial component of wind turbine blade composites. By upcycling all blade components, including steel, Carbon Rivers contributes to a circular wind turbine economy and diverts thousands of tons of waste from landfills.

With the pass to offshore wind farms, deterioration risks will be rocketed, and challenges will become even more severe. Solutions must be more drastic, including better designs, new and more corrosion-resistant materials, better maintenance procedures, much longer span-lives, and better decommissioning practices. More sustainable and resilient wind farm installations.  
In addition to ecological issues and impact on other sectors like fishing and sailing, other facts must be attended, such as the building of offshore substations; a robust system of subsea export cables; the upgrading of the coastal grid to receive the offshore energy; installation of new transmission lines and the interconnection to the existing facilities. All of them are exciting opportunities added to the specific chances directly related to aero generators: A larger as possible equipment with buried or submersed parts exposed to the stagnant electrolyte, or splash and tidal zones, waves, and winds of changing intensity, including hurricanes, and transporting abrasive particulate matter. Then, an elevated risk of intense corrosive attack, combined with mechanical stresses such as fatigue and erosion, and microbiological effects as well. 

In the quest for longer-lasting wind energy infrastructure, we must prioritize extended operational lifetimes and streamlined maintenance. Corrosion science and engineering play a pivotal role in achieving this goal. As we navigate this new landscape, Asset Integrity Professionals have a unique opportunity—one that hinges on leveraging transferable knowledge from established industries, particularly oil and gas. By learning from centuries of experience, we can build more reliable and sustainable solutions without reinventing the wheel.

Wind Turbine Engineers

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