Scottish Highlands firm trying to make wind energy even greener with second-hand parts

·5-min read

At an innovation centre on the banks of a highland loch, a handful of workers are at the vanguard of making wind power greener.

Not through employing new gadgets or gizmos, but by bringing old parts back to life.

During a recent visit to the Renewable Parts workshop outside the town of Lochgilphead on Scotland’s west coast, workers clean, strip and reassemble parts of wind turbines under the Scottish flag.

Renewable Parts workshop outside Lochgilphead (Bill Bailey/Ashden)
Renewable Parts workshop outside Lochgilphead (Bill Bailey/Ashden)

Their aim? To refurbish and remanufacture components instead of replacing them with new ones.

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

The company estimates that less than 5 per cent of replaceable wind turbine components around the world are currently refurbished or remanufactured, but believes there is potential for upwards of 70 per cent of those parts to be recirculated.

“That’s a complete transformation of the supply chain from linear to circular,” said Mr Barry. “That’s profound.”

This workshop in a field overlooking the loch is leading the charge, and the business hasn’t yet found another company in the world that similarly specialises in remanufacturing and refurbishing multiple parts of wind turbines.

The UK is not a big producer of onshore wind turbines, but Renewable Parts believes the country has an opportunity to become a global leader in the remanufacturing of wind turbine components.

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

Renewable Parts signed a memorandum of understanding this year with the energy company SSE Renewables and the University of Strathclyde to collaborate on increasing the amount of parts reused by SSE Renewables’ onshore wind turbines.

Justin Okumu, an electrical engineer at Renewable Parts (Bill Bailey/Ashden)
Justin Okumu, an electrical engineer at Renewable Parts (Bill Bailey/Ashden)

The company, which employs some 40 people in Lochgilphead and Renfrew, was founded 11 years ago to repair wind turbine parts, but supplies new parts too.

Today remanufacturing represents 30 to 40 per cent of its revenue, with the remainder from supplying new parts. But it is the remanufacturing side that Renewable Parts expects to grow fastest.

In the past three to four years, the company says, it has seen “exponential” growth in interest in using remanufactured parts as companies attempt to decarbonise their supply chains. In 2018, the percentage of overall company revenue that came from the remanufacturing side was less than 5 per cent; today it’s close to 40.

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

A big part of the offering is that Renewable Parts allows companies not only to remanufacture parts, but also to measure the carbon they save in doing so. This data is crucial as companies attempt to measure the decarbonisation of their supply chains to meet climate goals, Mr Barry said.

Wind turbines line the hillside in Stirling, Scotland (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty)
Wind turbines line the hillside in Stirling, Scotland (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty)

“The commitment to net zero – that changed everything,” he added. “You cannot be committed to net zero if you are not serious about decarbonising your supply chain.”

Wind turbines are bulky bits of equipment that require lots of steel and concrete and have large carbon footprints. Although studies have found this footprint is insignificant when contrasted with the emissions saved from not burning fossil fuels, wind companies can reduce the amount of carbon they use in their supply chains by reusing parts.

By remanufacturing a yaw gearbox, for example, which is used to keep the top of the turbine facing into the wind, a company can save around 428kg of carbon dioxide-equivalent. That’s the equivalent of a return flight from London to Istanbul, and there are between four to eight yaw gearboxes on every onshore wind turbine.

Renewable Parts has calculated that it has saved around 400 tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent by recirculating more than 3,400 parts since 2018. That’s the equivalent of more than 126 return flights from London to Perth in Australia, or the total greenhouse gases emitted in a year by 63 people in the United Kingdom.

An employee at Renewable Parts works on a yaw gearbox (Saphora Smith/The Independent)
An employee at Renewable Parts works on a yaw gearbox (Saphora Smith/The Independent)

Cop 26, the United Nations climate summit held down the road in Glasgow last year, offered a further boost. Since then, the company says, it has seen an uptick in the number of businesses enquiring about remanufactured parts – not for financial reasons but primarily because they’ve been recirculated.

There is interest in the environmental offering of the business from the workforce too.

Renewable Parts offers high-skilled jobs in a remote part of Scotland, where such businesses are few and far between. But it also trains people with no background in manufacturing or renewables.

“Up here we employ mainly on attitude,” said Michael Forbes, general manager of refurbishment engineering. “The job can be trained; getting the right people is the main thing.”

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

Those in the workshop said they were pleased to be able to work in the green sector locally.

Gavin MacMillan, a 28-year-old workshop lead who comes from Oban, an hour’s drive north of Lochgilphead, said the environmental aspect of the job was among the reasons he’d wanted to work there.

He had started his work life as an apprentice maintaining heavy machinery on local quarries, but said the fact that Renewable Parts helped companies cut waste and get to net zero appealed to him.

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