Nature and Biodiversity

Is a greener wind turbine about to hit the horizon?

A countryside landscape featuring wind turbines

Made partially from steel, we must find ways to make wind turbine production more sustainable Image: Photo by Thomas Reaubourg on Unsplash

Jochen Eickholt
Chief Executive Officer, Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy
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SDG 07: Affordable and Clean Energy

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  • Wind turbines are by far a more sustainable and responsible alternative to fossil-fuel-based forms of power generation.
  • Yet, wind turbines require a lot of steel in their manufacture and steel production emits a lot of carbon.
  • Setting a standard for greener steel will benefit the wind turbine industry and other steel-intensive sectors.

When we talk about the energy transition, we can’t avoid the question of resources. Where do we source the materials needed to manufacture the technologies that will reduce our global carbon footprint? And, how sustainable is that sourcing? Questions like these are relevant even for the wind industry, which is expected to ramp up installations all over the world to help governments meet their ambitious climate targets. But how do we get there, while never losing sight of sustainability?

The European Union, for example, set the year 2050 as its target for achieving climate neutrality for the continent. Part of the strategy behind that includes the ramp-up of wind-turbine installations. But if we’re going to achieve that goal, and despite requiring only a limited amount of resources, the wind industry will need greater access to these resources and raw materials – of which a key component is steel.

In 2022, more than 1.8 billion tons of crude steel were manufactured around the world. To build all the wind turbines needed over the next 27 years to meet the EU’s wind installation targets, the wind industry would need only 6% of that amount. Nevertheless, the manufacturing of steel generates significant CO2 emissions, which means that if we’re going to live up to our responsibility to the planet, we must find a way to reduce those emissions.

For every ton of steel, roughly 1.91 tons of carbon dioxide are emitted into the atmosphere. At the quantities being manufactured in the world today, the steel industry accounts for 7-9% of man-made greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide. This is something that needs to change. And, the wind industry is in a unique position to help drive that change.

Introducing the GreenerTower – a step towards net zero

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that wind turbines are still by far a more sustainable and responsible alternative to fossil-fuel-based forms of power generation. Taking into account the entire supply chain, only 10g of CO2 are attributed to every kWh produced by wind turbines. Compare that to the 800g of CO2 per kWh resulting from fossil-fuel-based means of power generation. It’s clear that wind turbines are the path we must take.

But, what can we do to achieve even more progress to continuously reduce the wind turbine industry's carbon footprint? This is a question that Siemens Gamesa has been asking itself for some time now and one that drove our team behind the RecyclableBlade. A few weeks ago, we launched the GreenerTower, the next step towards creating a fully circular, net-zero manufacturing of wind turbines.

How to make wind turbine production produce less greenhouse gas
How to make wind turbine production produce less greenhouse gas Image: Siemens Gamesa

Wind turbine tower production today accounts for more than one-third of all wind-turbine-related CO2 emissions. So, finding a way to reduce those emissions was the guiding principle behind the GreenerTower. To qualify as a 'greener' tower, the manufacturing of the steel used in its steel plates can emit no more than 0.7 tons of CO2 – well below the 1.91 tons of CO2 emitted on average by conventional steel-manufacturing processes.

This isn’t zero, but it is a significant step when you consider that setting such a standard has the potential to reduce the emissions associated with the steel plates used in wind turbine towers by 63%. If all turbines installed by Siemens Gamesa in one year would utilise GreenerTowers, it would be like taking 466,000 cars off the roads in Europe for a year.

And, here’s the thing: setting a standard for greener steel isn’t just about the wind industry. Yes, we must work towards achieving net-zero emissions for our own products, but steel is used in many other industries as well.

The wind industry is in a unique position because the products we offer have the potential to drastically reduce the entire steel industry’s carbon footprint. By doing so, we open up the door to more sustainably manufactured steel that, in turn, can be used for more wind turbines, providing even more renewable energy to the steel industry. That’s what we call circularity.

Sustainability isn’t a choice

We see many examples of companies taking responsibility to reduce their carbon emissions. It speaks to the larger trend in the world of companies investing much more in the green and renewable technologies of the future. Not only that, but governments are requiring it. Countries such as Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, The Netherlands and Norway are making sustainability a key component of their auction schemes.

So, the political will is evolving to support a sustainable energy and steel industry transition. And the will of companies to invest in our renewable future is there. Now it’s a matter of translating that will into the biggest ramp-up of renewable technologies to date – all while making sure that the means of manufacturing those technologies are themselves sustainable.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Nature and BiodiversityEnergy Transition
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