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European Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency
News article24 June 2021

The circular future of offshore wind energy

WCEF Side event 2021 took place on June 22

WCEF Side event (screenshot from CINEA's website)

We all know offshore wind turbines spin around in a circular fashion to generate clean power, but do we think that the concept of "circularity" is applied to the industry as a whole? Policy makers, experts and innovators addressed this question in a side event of the World Circular Economy Forum on 22 June organised by CINEA's Sustainable Blue Economy team.

Offshore wind energy will be crucial to achieving the European Green Deal goals for climate neutrality by 2050. The EU’s Offshore Renewable Energy Strategy sets out a target for a 25-fold increase in offshore wind capacity between now and then, potentially making up over 20% of the future EU electricity mix. This will require a new wave of turbine construction, which in turn will mean significant resource needs (steel, composites,…) to build them. In addition, many offshore wind farms will reach the end of their life in the coming years. Between 2020 and 2030, choices will have to be made on whether to opt for lifetime extension, repowering or decommissioning of over 1,800 offshore wind turbines. We therefore need to ensure "circularity by design" is built-in, to optimise resource use in the offshore wind sector and avoid huge volumes of waste materials when turbines reach the end of their productive life.

As DG MARE highlighted during the seminar, the EU is a global leader in offshore wind but also wants to consolidate its leadership in the industrial dimension (the supply chain and infrastructure). We need a circular approach that considers the whole lifetime of an offshore installation, for both environmental sustainability and industrial competitiveness. DG ENV also highlighted the importance for the offshore renewable sector to apply a circular design approach to increase resource efficiency, design long lasting, resilient and recyclable materials and ultimately minimise waste generation, in line with the EU Circular Economy Action Plan. This is among the EU’s research and innovation priorities for offshore wind and is reflected in Horizon Europe's first calls for proposals which looks at blade recycling and wind turbine circularity in general. The next step for the sector will be to adopt “circularity as a strategy”, something which is already happening via specific H2020 projects that are looking, for example, at laminated wood for wind towers (MOODVION) or the R3fiber project, which is developing a technology for recycling composite materials.

Sector association WindEurope echoed the importance of innovation to achieve circularity. They suggest to focus on recovery capacity, scalable recycling technologies and new, easier to recycle blade materials. WindEurope has further called for a European ban on landfilling decommissioned wind turbine blades by 2025. 

The aim of the event was also to discuss with experts how European and Maritime Fisheries Fund (EMFF) projects can contribute towards circularity in the offshore renewable energy sector. Aerones and DOCC-OFF focus on robotics and digitalisation to improve operations and maintenance; SATHScale is a novel floating concept; ATOMS a towable maintenance system; and LEAP-WIND develops more resilient and long-lasting turbine blades. Although circularity by design is not the core activity of these five projects, they recognise the importance of this element and strongly support circularity of the sector by extending the lifetime of wind turbines, reducing the environmental impact during the construction phase and optimising operations and maintenance activities. 

The discussions highlighted the need for more research and innovation, the right enabling conditions for a recycling market, increased access to data, notably data on environmental impacts, including by making use of EMODnet, cooperation across the supply chain and cross learning from other sectors. The speakers also noted that beyond “circularity by design” we also need to “design with nature”.

We are on the verge of an exciting change for offshore wind, a sector that promises to deliver on EU decarbonisation and circular economy goals. Today around 85 to 90% of a wind turbine can be recycled. But as we embark on a clean energy transition led by the EU, where offshore wind is set to play a key role, it is important that we all work to deliver a 100% sustainable energy future.


Publication date
24 June 2021