Wind Turbine Blades Can’t Be Recycled So They’re Pilling Up in Landfills
"In the US alone, about 8,000 will be removed in each of the next four years"
A wind turbine’s blades can be longer than a Boeing 747 wing, so at the end of their lifespan they can’t just be hauled away. A diamond-encrusted industrial saw is necessary to saw through the fiberglass to create three pieces small enough to be strapped to a tractor-trailer.
The municipal landfill in Casper, Wyo., is the final resting place of 870 blades whose days making renewable energy have come to end. The severed fragments look like bleached whale bones nestled against one another.
“That’s the end of it for this winter,” said landfill employee Michael Bratvold, watching a bulldozer bury them forever in sand. “We’ll get the rest when the weather breaks this spring.”
Tens of thousands of aging blades are coming down from steel towers around the world and most have nowhere to go but landfills.
In the U.S. alone, about 8,000 will be removed in each of the next four years. Europe, which has been dealing with the problem longer, has about 3,800 coming down annually through at least 2022.
Designed to last as many as 20 years, blade lifespans can be shortened by several factors, including flaws in manufacturing and environmental challenges, like lightning.
Built to withstand hurricane-force winds, the blades can’t easily be crushed, recycled or repurposed. That’s created an urgent search for alternatives in places that lack wide-open prairies. In the U.S., they go to the handful of landfills that accept them, in Lake Mills, Iowa; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Casper, where they will be interred in stacks that reach 30 feet under.
“The wind turbine blade will be there, ultimately, forever,” said Bob Cappadona, chief operating officer for the North American unit of Paris-based Veolia Environnement S.A., which is searching for better ways to deal with the waste. “Most landfills are considered a dry tomb.”
“The last thing we want to do is create even more environmental challenges.”
To prevent climate change caused by burning fossil fuels, many governments and corporations have pledged to use only clean energy by 2050. Wind energy is one of the cheapest ways to reach that goal.
The electricity comes from turbines that spin generators. Modern models emerged after the 1973 Arab oil embargo, when shortages compelled western governments to find alternatives to fossil fuels. The first wind farm in the U.S. was installed in New Hampshire in 1980, and California deployed thousands of turbines east of San Francisco across the Altamont Pass.
The first models were expensive and inefficient, spinning fast and low. After 1992, when Congress passed a tax credit, manufacturers invested in taller and more powerful designs. Their steel tubes rose 260 feet and sported swooping fiberglass blades. A decade later, General Electric Co. made its 1.5 megawatt model — enough to supply 1,200 homes in a stiff breeze — an industry standard.
Wind power is carbon-free and about 85% of turbine components, including steel, copper wire, electronics and gearing can be recycled or reused. But the fiberglass blades remain difficult to dispose of. With some as long as a football field, big rigs can only carry one at a time, making transportation costs prohibitive for long-distance hauls. Scientists are trying to find better ways to separate resins from fibers or to give small chunks new life as pellets or boards.
In the European Union, which strictly regulates material that can go into landfills, some blades are burned in kilns that create cement or in power plants. But their energy content is weak and uneven and the burning fiberglass emits pollutants.
In a pilot project last year, Veolia tried grinding them to dust, looking for chemicals to extract. “We came up with some crazy ideas,” Cappadona said. “We want to make it a sustainable business. There’s a lot of interest in this.”
One [rent-seeking] start-up, Global Fiberglass Solutions, developed a method to break down blades and press them into [expensive and all but useless] pellets and fiber boards to be used for flooring and walls. The company started producing samples at a plant in Sweetwater, Texas, near the continent’s largest concentration of wind farms. It plans another operation in Iowa.
“We can process 99.9% of a blade and handle about 6,000 to 7,000 blades a year per plant,” said Chief Executive Officer Don Lilly. The company has accumulated an inventory of about one year’s worth of blades ready to be chopped up and recycled as demand increases, he said. “When we start to sell to more builders, we can take in a lot more of them. We’re just gearing up.”
Until then, municipal and commercial dumps will take most of the waste, which the American Wind Energy Association in Washington says is safest and cheapest.
“Wind turbine blades at the end of their operational life are landfill-safe, unlike the waste from some other energy sources, and represent a small fraction of overall U.S. municipal solid waste,” according to an emailed statement from the group. It pointed to an Electric Power Research Institute study that estimates all blade waste through 2050 would equal roughly .015% of all the municipal solid waste going to landfills in 2015 alone.