The Scottish Highlands firm trying to make wind energy even greener

At an innovation hub on the shores of a highland lake, a handful of frontline workers are working to make wind power greener.

Not by using new gadgets or gizmos, but by bringing old bits back to life.

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During a recent visit to the renewable parts workshop outside the town of Lochgilphead on Scotland’s west coast, workers clean, disassemble and assemble parts of Scottish flag wind turbines.

Renewable parts workshop outside Lochgilphead

(Bill Bailey/Ashden)

your goal? Refurbish and remanufacture components instead of replacing them with new ones.

“We’re trying to bring the philosophy and practices of the circular economy to the wind industry or renewable energy,” said James Barry, the company’s chief executive, dialing in for the interview from his office in Renfrew, outside Glasgow. “We are a green energy source – ie wind – but we are not a green aftermarket.”

The company estimates that currently less than 5 percent of replaceable wind turbine components around the world are remanufactured or remanufactured, but believes there is potential for over 70 percent of these parts to be reused.

“This is a complete transformation of the supply chain from linear to circular,” said Mr. Barry. “This is profound.”

This workshop in a field overlooking the lake is a leader and the company has yet to find another company in the world that similarly specializes in remanufacturing and overhauling multiple wind turbine parts.

The UK is not a major manufacturer of onshore wind turbines, but Renewable Parts believes the country has the potential to become a world leader in wind turbine remanufacturing components.

“We are developing an industry within an industry,” said Mr. Barry.

Renewable Parts signed a memorandum of understanding earlier this year with energy company SSE Renewables and the University of Strathclyde to work together to increase the amount of reused parts in SSE Renewables’ onshore wind turbines.

Justin Okumu, Electrical Engineer at Renewable Parts

(Bill Bailey/Ashden)

The company, which employs around 40 people in Lochgilphead and Renfrew, was established 11 years ago to repair wind turbine parts but also supply new parts.

Today, remanufacturing accounts for 30 to 40 percent of sales, with the rest coming from supplying new parts. But it’s the remanufacturing side that Renewable Parts expects to grow the fastest.

Over the past three to four years, the company says, interest in using remanufactured parts has grown “exponentially” as companies seek to decarbonize their supply chains. In 2018, remanufacturing accounted for less than 5 percent of the company’s total sales; today there are almost 40.

The company mainly remanufactures parts for onshore turbines, but has also been supplying refurbished parts for offshore turbines for the past two years.

A big part of what it offers is that Renewable Parts allows companies not only to remanufacture parts, but also to measure the carbon saved in the process. This data is critical as companies seek to measure the decarbonization of their supply chains to meet climate targets, Mr Barry said.

Wind turbines line the hillside in Stirling, Scotland

(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty)

“The commitment to net zero – that changed everything,” he added. “You cannot commit to net zero unless you are serious about decarbonizing your supply chain.”

Wind turbines are bulky pieces of equipment that require lots of steel and concrete and have a large carbon footprint. Although studies have shown that this footprint is insignificant compared to the emissions saved by not burning fossil fuels, wind companies can reduce the amount of carbon they use in their supply chains by reusing parts.

For example, by overhauling an yaw gear that turns the top of the turbine into the wind, a company can save around 428 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent. That’s the equivalent of a round-trip flight from London to Istanbul, and there are between four and eight yaw gears on each onshore wind turbine.

Renewable Parts has calculated that around 400 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent have been saved by reusing more than 3,400 parts since 2018. That’s the equivalent of more than 126 round-trip flights from London to Perth in Australia, or the total annual greenhouse gas emissions of 63 people in the UK.

A Renewable Parts employee works on a yaw gear

(Saphora Smith/The Independent)

Cop 26, the United Nations climate summit held in Glasgow last year, offered another boost. Since then, according to the company, the number of requests from companies for remanufactured parts has increased – not for financial reasons, but mainly because they can be recycled.

The workforce is also interested in the company’s environmental offerings.

Renewable Parts offers high quality jobs in a remote part of Scotland where such companies are few and far between. But it also trains people with no background in manufacturing or renewable energy.

“Up here we’re mostly concerned with posture,” says Michael Forbes, general manager of Refurbishment Engineering. “The profession can be learned; Finding the right people is the main thing.”

Mr Forbes, who had a boat maintenance business before joining Renewable Parts, said the workshop has been set up so that in the future the company should be able to hire staff straight from the school. Moving people to the area is a real challenge, he said, as second homes are used as holiday rentals and the long-term rental market is small.

The workshop participants said they were glad to be able to work locally in the green industry.

Gavin MacMillan, a 28-year-old workshop manager from Oban, an hour’s drive north of Lochgilphead, said the environmental aspect of the job was one of the reasons he chose to work there.

He had started his working life as an apprentice servicing heavy machinery at local quarries, but said the fact that renewable parts were helping companies reduce waste and reach net zero appealed to him.

“[It’s] to make the country a greener place,” he said.

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