EDITOR: | November 13th, 2015 | 14 Comments

Wind power forecast backs “Lift-on” rare earth recycling movement

| November 13, 2015 | 14 Comments

Trump-hairIt is rare that we sound like Donald Trump but recently he made the claim that “wind power is obsolete”. For Republican candidates of days gone by Russia or Iran or North Korea have been classified as the Great Satans in candidates’ debates. It is however perfectly understandable that with the comb-over to end all comb-overs, The Donald should be an enemy of wind power! However there is an element to wind power of obsolescence and it is that which I shall discuss in this research piece.

What Goes around Comes Around

Our interest in the fate of the current fleet of wind turbines was piqued by a report in the Financial Times in recent weeks. Wind turbines have spread dramatically in this century as a cheap(ish) source of renewable energy. The main criticisms have been that they are eyesores and that they harm wildlife, particularly birds. The former criticism has been dealt with in some places by moving the wind farms offshore which in turn has exacerbated criticisms on the second issue with seabirds having to run the gauntlet of densely packed offshore farms such as exist off the coasts of Germany, Holland and Denmark.

The negative backlash now means that some areas are now withdrawing approvals for renewals of turbines particularly when they are standalone or in small clumps on highly visible hillsides. In some places there are pushes to disband offshore farms or at least to replace dense occurrences with larger turbines that are spread farther apart. Turbines are designed to last 20-25 years, and increasing numbers will reach the end of their serviceable life.

To make matters worse the first bloom of enthusiasm from taxpayers and governments has gone off the rose. The FT reported that energy companies have warned that subsidy cuts from the UK government will prevent them from replacing old wind farms as almost 1,000 turbines approach the end of their lives over the next decade. According to industry body RenewableUK, the UK has 924 turbines that have been operating since before 2004.

It was hoped that improving farms in prime locations would be a convenient way to increase energy capacity without building in new areas, but funding uncertainty is making companies reluctant to plan projects without government support.

Since May of 2015 the UK government has changed planning laws and cancelled access to the main subsidies for onshore wind, the first steps in a plan to completely phase out renewables subsidies.

In the US, the sceptics are more in abundance because in the land of “overdoing things”, wind turbines in some places were led by enthusiasm rather than reality. In maybe an apocryphal story in Hawaii the 37 turbines at the Kamaoa Wind Farm stood derelict for more than six years after it was discovered that repairs were more expensive than replacements. This is just one of six abandoned wind farms in one of the most wind-ideal places on the planet. While as many as 4,500 wind turbines have been built, and abandoned, in California alone. Wild claims circulate that as many as one in four wind turbines in the US do not work. Certainly a frightening failure rate if it’s true. It leaves one wondering whether construction and siting has been driven by tax breaks rather that local wind velocity considerations.

If nothing else the wind farms that will never reach production, or at least never be replaced, provide interesting scavenging fodder for those who believe, as our Jack Lifton does, that recycling is going to be a major force in the permanent magnet space.

Repowering – Word Play?

The industry refers to improvements as “repowering,” but advances in technology mean this often involves completely decommissioning and replacing old turbines, making costs comparable with new developments. Some of this repowering means upsizing while in the minds of some it means repositioning outmoded turbines in the Third World or in community energy generation projects.

Modern wind turbines are more than three times the height and provide 10 times more output than turbines from the mid-1990s.

Relative sizes

But where do old wind turbines go to die? We hunted around and found an interesting report from a local authority (Aberdeen in Scotland) that commented: “The successful implementation of wind energy in Europe has led to a developing market for second-hand wind turbines. Repowering of wind farms after 5 to 15 years of operation releases a large number of turbines into the market. For developing countries, this is an opportunity to gain experience in working with renewable energy sources, to establish their own wind energy industries and to profit from technology transfer with low capital expenditure. For many developing countries, projects with new wind turbines have proven unaffordable and cheaper used turbines provide an option. Used turbines have also been attractive for community- led schemes in Scotland and the UK”.

This may indeed be wishful thinking, combined with rose-tinted spectacles. The University of Edinburgh found “for onshore wind, the monthly ‘load factor’ of turbines – a measure of how much electricity they generate as a percentage of how much they could produce if on at full power all the time – dropped from a high of 24 per cent in the first year after construction, to just 11 per cent after 15 years.” This implies that sending old wind turbines to Uganda (not known for its wind anyway, but that’s a mere detail) because it helps developing nations, may just be sending them more problems with largely exhausted collection of tired old turbines.

On the commercial front, the FT reported that in October the large infrastructure group John Laing purchased the biggest repower project in Germany. Ross McArthur, managing director and head of renewable energy, said he expected to see more projects across the EU in the coming years: “It’s a no-brainer; you get more bang for your buck with more energy from fewer turbines. Even from a visual impact point of view, you’re replacing larger numbers with fewer, albeit taller, turbines.” Fourteen repower projects have been completed or approved in the UK since 2010, but Mr McArthur said the UK market was now “more or less gone”.

RWE Innogy, the renewable arm of Germany’s RWE Group, commented that: “We have a site in Cumbria (in North East England) that’s currently 12 turbines, and we have a planning application to turn that into a six-turbine site that delivers three times more output. The decision we’ve got though is, it may be more sensible given the current climate to eke out the life of a 20-plus year-old asset, with technology that’s 20 years out of date.”

Less is more, they say, but maybe less is actually less in absolute terms for the consumption of REEs in the magnets used in the turbines. Moreover a steady flow of scrapped turbines to the breakers yards (and the inevitable REE recycling facilities – even if these aren’t in North America) will in some ways negate the demand scenarios some REE miners use to undermine their growth projections.


We should remember that in technology things always change. We have seen this in chips and cellphones and computers and TV sets. The item gets cheaper as it gets more powerful and smaller (or bigger and flatter in the case of TVs). Wind turbines have been around for quite a long while now so it is strange that many view the first flush of last decade as setting some sort of high water mark for technology when in fact like everything that eventually wears out, redundancy is not only built in, but guaranteed. The assumption that with obsolescence whatever had been built before would just be replaced with more of the same is fallacious.

Thus we have an interesting new aspect to the permanent magnet trajectory playing out.  It is quite possible that quite a substantial amount of the current wind turbine fleet at the global scale may not be replaced on a like-for-like basis and that there may indeed be a net shrinkage in permanent magnet usage in replacement of existing turbines, as some of the current fleet will not be reauthorized in their existing locations and those that are replaced might be substituted with fewer, yet larger, turbines.

Renewable energy is itself being renewed. Get used to it!


InvestorIntel.com is a leading online source of investor information that provides public market coverage for both investors and industry alike. A qualified online influencer through ... <Read more about InvestorIntel>

Copyright © 2022 InvestorIntel Corp. All rights reserved. More & Disclaimer »


  • Janet

    Any article with such a great intro deserves to be read. This was very informative, I have gotten a true education here on wind power and the bigger picture. Fascinating.

    November 13, 2015 - 11:24 AM

  • hackenzac
    November 13, 2015 - 11:53 AM

  • Christopher Ecclestone

    Well spotted… interesting that it was Aberdeen also that made the comment on repowering… The Donald only wishes they would “repower” somewhere else.. LoL..

    Donald is, of course, a good Scottish name.. as for Trump.. well that’s maybe a foible of some Ellis Island official…

    November 13, 2015 - 11:58 AM

  • hackenzac

    Like Donald Corleone if he was part Sicilian.

    November 13, 2015 - 12:09 PM

  • Tracy Weslosky

    Really good piece Christopher, thank you. I have photos of broken wind turbines in Spain and in Hawaii and these were shots taken at least 5 years ago. I assumed that the technology would advance, and then — the magnets, oh yes….Jack will be back from Singapore tonight, and I look forward to him weighing in.

    November 13, 2015 - 4:45 PM

  • Jeff Thompson

    Near where I live, the Altamont Pass wind farm which was built in the 1980s has been undergoing replacement of many of the earliest installations. As Chris’s article points out, one of the driving forces is to reduce the number of bird deaths, as they are swapping out roughly twenty of the older 100kW models with one of the newer 2MW models. So the total capacity can be maintained with fewer bird deaths under such a plan, but given that much of the world wants to substantially increase the percentage of total energy production that comes from wind turbines, and that the raw population is also increasing, it means that at some point you won’t be swapping twenty 100kW models for one 2MW model, but will be directly replacing twenty 100kW models with twenty 2MW models, and the bird deaths will remain the same or increase. Certainly a lot of potential for recycling the rare earths here, but I don’t see much hope for the birds.

    November 13, 2015 - 8:38 PM

  • Tim Ainsworth

    Chris, a few points:

    Maybe the removal of Govt subsidies SB viewed positively, get grid parity/or get out, requiring bigger, more efficient plant, in more selective locations. Perhaps part of the subsidies SB directed at cleaning up some of the eyesores they sponsored.

    In 2013 DD PM generators only represented 26% of wind generators, maybe they’ll get some scrap iron from eventually recycling the other 74%. In 2006 only 16% were DD PM so really not sure how much recycling is going to happen near term, and with the most expensive element Dy reduced sub 1% on current DD LT recycling will face dubious economics.

    Not sure if there are any stats on bird strikes DD (26%) vs gearbox design (74%) but “permanent magnet direct-drive technology, whereby the required generator speed is a great deal lower than that of the doubly fed inductor generator system design” but the lower speed required by DD perhaps suggests it might be less.


    Siemens new D7 offshore platforms have a swept area of 505 feet and generate 7MW, dwarfing those illustrated. Next gen currently in development will take DD PM to 10MW. One machine strategically positioned will replace an awful lot of those tiddlers.


    Some very obvious issues with the initial highly subsidised roll out of wind generators, but very few of them were DD PM, if any at the earlier stages.

    Removal/reduction of subsidies has forced industry to become far more efficient and as a consequence many of the big players have turned to DD PM machines and indications are this growth will continue strongly, particularly offshore with much higher capacity 7MW then 10MW machines achieving grid parity.

    Whether they represent LT solutions remains to be seen, particularly when you note the current Indonesian annual palm oil plantation burn off blanketing Singapore in smoke generates the same level of CO2 into the atmosphere as the German annual total:

    ““Fire emissions are already higher than Germany’s total CO2 emissions, and the fire season is not over yet,”


    Do we maybe need to rethink our priorities? Particularly in light of the people’s wagon fiasco. Not defending Volk’s for a second, but do we wonder at the pressures that brought about such appalling deception?

    November 13, 2015 - 9:43 PM

  • Jeff Thompson

    Of course this is just a science fiction idea in the near term, but in the long run what the world could really benefit from in my opinion is when physicists figure out how to control nuclear fusion reactions. The world’s population growth is going to need the sort of order-of-magnitude increase in available power that a nuclear fusion reactor could provide, not the linear increases that current conventional and alternative technologies can provide. If the optimistic speculation that nuclear fusion reactors could potentially produce very little radioactive waste turn out to be true someday (which of course may just be wishful thinking at this point), then I see the long-term energy mix for the world largely being dominated by nuclear fusion reactors, with a strong supporting role for solar power generation (due to the ease with which it could be incorporated systematically into future construction of virtually all new building/home rooftops), and a reduction/elimination of nuclear fission reactors (to get rid of all the nasty radioactive waste they produce that must be stored for thousands of years), reduction/elimination of wind turbines (due to their land-intensive usage if they are ever expanded to very large scales – I would rather see all that beautiful open land turned into national parks to prevent additional urban sprawl), and elimination of fossil fuels.
    The things are probably many decades away, perhaps a century, outside of most of our lifetimes, and in the intervening time of course Trump’s comments are nonsense. Wind power will and should continue to provide an increasing role in energy production for the near and medium term. Thanks Chris for the thought provoking article.

    November 14, 2015 - 10:06 AM

  • Gordon

    It was a cheap shot to include Trump in the heading for attention grabbing. The story was good enough to stand alone no need for sensationalism. Also the comments were also trashy, keep politics out of it and comment on the story.

    November 14, 2015 - 2:04 PM

  • Frank

    There is potential irony in Donald Trump’s comment as one of the stock trading newsletters has been pushing GE as a future big winner from Donald Trump’s plans to overhaul the US infrastructure, that would also include old wind farms, many of which can be upgraded with GE’s bigger and more efficient wind turbines.

    November 15, 2015 - 2:40 AM

  • Jack Lifton

    Tracy did not have my correct travel schedule. I am now in Spain until next Weds to speak on rare earth recycling at PROMETIA, a European Industrial/Academic/Government consortium dedicated to finding the best ways to conserve and recycle technology metals.
    I do want to make a few comments. One of the commenters says that “only” 26% of the installed turbines approaching end-of-life are DD (Direct Drive and thus using NdFeB permanent magnets). Isn’t it trivially obvious that those DD units should have their magnets recycled wherever and whenever possible and that mechanically damaged magnets or those that have had their specifications degrade for any reason should be processed to recover their rare earths for re-use in making new magnets? This is of course exactly what the Chinese do. I am amazed that people think that lithium-ion batteries should be recycled to recover the (very cheap) lithium but would question the recovery of the very valuable magnet rare earths (Especially when no matter what the market prices may be the cost of recovering the magnet metals is far less than producing new ones (please do not tell me tales of hundred million dollar “research” by Oak Ridge National Laboratory to recycle rare earths from magnets. This was a huge waste of other peoples’ money [yours and mine, of course]).
    Chris Ecclestone is as usual “right on” about American overdoing of everything. The US needs a minimalist rare earth magnet recycling operation to support a minimalist total rare earth permanent magnet domestic supply chain. The twin targets of this project would be profit and the security of being able to scale it up if and when needed. Instead we get GE, Solvay, and Umicore saying that it can’t be done due to pricing of the rare earths. If you add Global1000 corporate fixed overhead to the project then of course “it can’t be done profitably.”
    In Singapore the shift of focus back to Asia for the rare earths was palpable. The globalization of the rare earths industry is dead (Was it ever alive?). It is today as always a regional issue dominated by China with Japan, Korea, and India coming on strong. This region, Eastern Asia, is where the bulk of future demand for the rare earths is and will continue to expand. I will have a report on Professor Kingsnorth’s views delivered in Singapore in just a few days. I believe that he and I are in lockstep on the centrality of China and Asia as a permanent situation in the rare earths space.


    November 15, 2015 - 5:18 AM

  • Tim Ainsworth

    Lol Jack, the triviality is 26% as at 2013, hopefully not at use by date for a few years yet.
    The less than trivial fact from this commentator is the high Dy window starting closing rather rapidly from this point and I’m yet to see any data on the efficacy of recycling NdPr at anything remotely close to the current values.
    Will be interesting to see if you can provide an economic basis to the contrary, factually, sans trivia.

    November 15, 2015 - 9:07 AM

  • Jeff Thompson

    Despite the continued centrality of Asia in the rare earth marketplace, and the benefit that a robust recycling effort could provide, do you still see a place in the mix for the development of North American rare earth mine(s) as additional primary and independent sources, given the difficult economics at the moment?
    Thanks for your thoughts,

    November 15, 2015 - 9:08 AM

  • Jack Lifton

    America can NEVER be self-sufficient in rare earths without domestic mining. A combination of Rare Element Resources, Texas Rare Earths, and Ucore would make the USA self-sufficient. Otherwise it will take one or two of them and recycling to do the job. As globalization fails and regionalization rises to replace it NAFTA will look better and better. We can outsource assembly to India and source light rare earths (from Monazite) from India but the best distributed deposits and heavy rare earth opportunities outside of China are in the USA, Europe, and Canada. It is possible to profitably recycle rare earth permanent magnet scrap but only in limited quantities. For self sufficiency or even to just lessen the dependence of the USA and Europe upon Chinese sources domestic mining is essential. Chinese domestic costs will drive this result in the long run anyway.


    November 15, 2015 - 11:04 AM

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.