These pictures of old wind turbine blades being landfilled (and this recent Bloomberg article) disturbed me somewhat and got me thinking – we’re often keen to deploy new technologies without considering end-of-life issues so just how difficult is it to dispose of waste from various forms of low carbon generation?
So being a numbers person I thought I’d try and give it all a sense of scale. Here’s my estimate of the most difficult to dispose of waste from 1TWh of output from four different low carbon technologies. These are my rough and ready estimates so if you have better information then feel free to comment on LinkedIn. Given this is all about a sense of scale let’s not argue over anything less than a factor of 2 though!
Wind(based on MHI Vestas V164-10 Offshore machine at 40% load factor in North Sea). Waste per TWh = 100 tonnes of fibre composite material. Disposal = landfill – not good but easy.
PV(based on Mitsubishi MLU-250HC at 10% load factor in UK). Waste per TWh = 4,000 tonnes of mixed electronics, wiring, substrate, glass and frame. Disposal = landfill, some separation of metals may be possible but expensive. Voluminous but easy disposal.
Coal with CCS (produces about 1 tonne CO2per MWh). Waste per TWh = 1,000,000 tonnes CO2. Disposal = geological storage, tried and tested but expensive both in capex and opex and requires particular geology.
Nuclear(based on Hinkley C EPR, producing 3,600 tonnes over its life, needing 0.3km2of geological storage space for 900 canisters over 60 year life – EDF in HPC consultation para 6.38.4 & 6.50.4). Waste (spent fuel) per TWh = 2.4 tonnes of spent fuel. With shielding (cavern infill) equates to digging out then burying 500 tonnes per TWh. Disposal = not yet agreed but potentially geological storage, disposal is as difficult as it can be. [figures corrected after my misunderstanding space underground was quoted in square km, not cubic km, 20/2/20]
So the choice seems to be landfilling 100 tonnes of wind turbine blades, landfilling 4,000 tonnes of PV panels, pumping 1 million tonnes of CO2underground or moving a thousand tonnes of rock to bury a few tonnes of very nasty stuff.
This is very simplistic, it’s only dealt with the most difficult waste from each and there are of course many other issues. For each there may be a better option from pyrolysis of blades to reprocessing of nuclear fuel, but for the sake of this comparison I’ve assumed the worst for each.
When I started these calculations I had no idea how they would compare, so actually those turbine blades being landfilled is not so bad after all. Even if it was not considered prior to construction waste disposal is not going to be the biggest issue for wind.