A total of 1,155 wind turbines are already 20 or more years old, 20% of the total wind power. Producers must choose between dismantling, lengthening operations or repowering.
In 1986, the first wind farm in Aragon and the second in all of Spain was installed in the Zaragoza town of La Muela. It had 12 wind turbines. It was the beginning of an energy gale that has turned the community into a national and international benchmark for the main renewable source, essential for advancing in the decarbonization of the electricity generation mix as it is one of the cleanest alternatives to produce light.
At the end of 2021, a total of 2,804 wind turbines were recorded in the three provinces, according to data provided to this newspaper by the Wind Energy Business Association (AEE). In this way, there is one of these towers that exceed 100 meters in height with the blades for every 468 inhabitants, the highest density in the entire country. They account for 13% of all the windmills found in Spain (21,500) but a high percentage of them begin to become obsolete if the appropriate measures are not taken to extend their period of operation. Specifically, two out of five are already 20 or more years old and are therefore approaching the end of their useful life and, with it, their dismantling.
The growth of the sector has been dazzling in the most recent stage. In the last five years alone, almost 800 wind turbines have been built on the mountains of the community, a sacrifice for the territory that has fueled controversy in rural areas about the impact on the landscape and the environment, as well as the debate about whether Renewable energies provide sufficient wealth and added value to the territory in relation to the enormous benefits that their promoters earn.
At the end of last year, Aragón had 175 wind farms totaling 4,491 megawatts (MW) of power –in Spain, 1,298 plants and more than 28,000 MW–, a figure that has more than doubled in just four years and places the community as the second in the country in this technology. It is only surpassed by Castilla y León (6,384 MW), but this is a region that doubles it in terms of surface area.
In recent years, the Spanish wind sector has maintained its upward trend in terms of the installation of new capacity and participation in the generation mix. Looking ahead to the coming years, and as established by the National Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC), wind energy will continue this growth with the aim of reaching 50 gigawatts (GW) in 2030, compared to the 28 installed at the beginning of 2022. Aragón will continue to stand out on that horizon and will monopolize an important part of this new capacity: around 5 GW (5,000 MW).
At the same time, the first generation of wind turbines is reaching the end of its operational life. At the end of 2022, around 20% of the power currently installed in the community will have a life of 20 years or more. That figure could exceed 30% in 2025 if the PNIEC scenario is met. Of the wind turbines that are installed in Aragón, 40% (1,155) exceed two decades of life and 60% (1,716) were installed before 2005 and, therefore, are more than 15 years old.
Despite these figures, from the sector they send a message of tranquility. Although wind turbines are designed by the manufacturer to be operational for a useful life of 20 years, in most cases, thanks “to an adequate operation and maintenance policy”, it is observed that when they reach that longevity “they are still in good conditions”, says Virgilio Márquez, CEO of the Wind Energy Business Association. For this reason, it is usual to extend the operation of wind farms up to 25 years or even exceed them, maintaining the operational and safety conditions.
When the wind farms approach the end of their design useful life (20 years), the owners must choose to dismantle the facilities, guaranteeing that the land returns to its initial state before its construction; make investments to extend their period of activity; or repower the plants, replacing the old wind turbines with new ones, more efficient and with greater capacity.
In the coming years, many wind farms will have to opt for one of these alternatives. The choice between one or the other strategy will depend, according to Márquez, “on multiple factors that affect the business model of existing facilities”, such as, for example, the state of the machines, the applicable taxation, the slowness of the administrative processes, the end of the incentive regime or the development of specific support mechanisms for repowering.
Until now, the natural tendency of the Spanish market has been the extension of life beyond the twenty years initially planned. The fact that, in most cases, the existing assets are close to their amortization and that the investments required to extend the useful life are reduced, together with the slow administrative processing of the repowering projects, mean that the extension of life “is the alternative with the least economic risk for the promoter and the one that is being adopted by the majority”, they point out from the large wind energy employers.
As a consequence of the foregoing, with the scenarios foreseen for the repowering of wind farms in the coming years, everything points to the fact that more than 20,000 blades may be uninstalled in the coming years, mainly those of the oldest and smallest wind turbines that have far exceeded the 20 years old. As of December 31 of last year, only 11 wind farms had been repowered in Spain. The wind turbines dismantled in these operations have been destined mainly for second-hand markets.
In fact, some Spanish companies are pioneers in generating this business to give mills a second life on a global scale through specific auctions. This mechanism allows wind farm owners to sell dismantled assets, either for reinstallation in other locations or for use as spare parts.
“The blades from repowered wind farms to date in Spain have not had to be transferred to landfill, but have instead been absorbed by these second-hand markets,” underlines the CEO of AEE. In this sense, Márquez recalls that the European sector undertook in 2021 that no shovel would be transferred to a landfill as of 2025. “The new shovel recycling industry has reached an adequate industrial dimension in recent years to absorb such an amount of composite material and being able to reuse it under the optics of the circular economy”, he emphasizes.
El Periódico de Aragón