By 2050 in the US, wind power is projected to increase to an impressive 404.25 GW capacity from 40.18 GW in 2010, according to the US Department of Energy. With this increase comes an estimated 6.88 million tons of anticipated waste in the US and 43 million tons worldwide, much of which will come in the form of discarded wind turbines.
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As it stands, most blades end up in a landfill because they are difficult to recycle. So, when it comes to wind power waste, how concerned should we be?
The short answer is that, yes, we should be concerned. But that’s not to say that installing more wind farms is a bad idea. Despite the outdated views and research presented in Michael Moore’s latest polemic, wind power (and other renewable energy sources) are greener and more financially viable than continuing to extract, transport, and burn fossil fuels. And we already have the know-how to recycle wind power waste.
Why wind power?
Wind turbines convert kinetic energy (movement) from the wind into mechanical energy. As the blades of a turbine turn, they spin a generator and produce electricity. No fossil fuels, no emissions, no particulate matter polluting the air, just wind energy that costs considerably less to generate than other forms of electricity.
Wind turbines can be installed onshore or offshore, and you can even install a home wind turbine if you have the right space and conditions. For commercial installations, most wind turbines today are horizontal axis turbines with three fiberglass blades. These are attached to a central hub which is attached to a nacelle mounted on a steel tower. This is set in a concrete foundation, with various bits of wiring and other parts making up the many thousands of components that go into one of these impressive machines.
In the US, most wind turbines are around 50 meters (164 feet) long, though some now have even longer blades and taller towers, with blades getting up to 80 meters long in a few cases. These turbines have an active lifespan of around a quarter-century, and after 25 years the various components can be repurposed or recycled. These materials include steel, copper wiring, and miscellaneous electronics, and other parts.
What about those blades though?
Can wind turbine blades be recycled?
Wind turbine blades are generally made of lightweight, durable fiberglass. This is a composite material, and it is a challenge to separate the glass fibers from the plastics in these blades. Because the blades are designed to be super strong, it’s also challenging to break the blades apart for ease of transportation to recycling facilities (or landfills).
When wind turbine blades are decommissioned, the current practice is to take blades that will fit on a flatbed truck to landfill, incineration, or a storage facility. Some blades are too big for this kind of transport and have to be cut on-site using specialized vehicle-mounted wire saws or diamond saws similar to those used in quarrying operations. In many cases, the infrastructure around turbines can be ‘repowered’ by installing new blades that are more efficient (and often larger).
The idea of all these fiberglass blades ending up in landfills instead of being recycled is troubling, of course. And in Europe, where there are strict rules on what can go into landfills, these blades may instead be incinerated in kilns to produce power. Unfortunately, burning fiberglass creates air pollution and produces very little energy in a weak, uneven fashion.
Opponents of green energy have jumped all over these issues to discredit the whole idea of wind power and renewables. But while some blades have definitely ended up in landfills or incinerators, never to be seen again, many blades are actually being stored in the hope that recycling technology would catch up to the needs of the industry.
And that’s where we have good news! First, wind turbines are inert and landfill-safe, unlike waste from some other renewables such as photovoltaic panels. This means that these blades can sit in storage or landfill for many years without harming the environment, even if they do take up space. And that space is just a fraction of the space taken up by other municipal solid waste in the US, with one Electric Power Research Institute study estimating that blade waste through 2050 would account for just 0.015% of all municipal solid waste going to landfills in 2015 alone.
Storing these blades can also be lucrative for smaller communities, with six-figure landfill fees helping to fund playgrounds and other infrastructure and services. That ‘easy money’ may soon come to an end though, as in the last couple of years, numerous partnerships have sprung up in the US to provide solutions for wind turbine blade recycling.
Recycling wind turbine blades
In Europe, there are recycling partnerships galore, with numerous explorations of end-of-life options for blades. WindEurope, which represents the European Union’s wind industry estimates that some 14,000 blades will be decommissioned in Europe by 2023. This creates a significant incentive to find ways to incorporate blades into a circular economy, which was the focus of a May 2020 report titled Accelerating Wind Turbine Blade Circularity.
Closer to home, PacificCorp and MidAmerican Energy (two large US utility companies) have partnered with Carbon Rivers to create recycling options for blades, for instance. And an exciting partnership between the US, Ireland and Northern Ireland Universities – Re-wind – was established to find innovative ways to reuse and repurpose spent blades as components for powerline structures, towers, roofs for emergency housing, and even for pedestrian bridges.
The idea of recycling turbine blades isn’t new, of course. About a decade ago, a German partnership devised a way to recycle the blades into co-processing material for cement. So while many reports claim that turbines are just 85% recyclable, this mechanical process has long enabled a 100% recycling rate. What’s more, recycling the blades this way helps to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions associated with conventional cement production.
The US company General Electric is also getting in on the recycling game. In 2020, GE Renewable Energy announced a multi-year agreement with Veolia North America for an innovative US wind turbine blade recycling program. Under this program, the blades would be shredded and used for cement production, with GE noting that such processes have already reached commercial scale in Europe. The process used by GE and Veolia enables full recycling and can reduce carbon dioxide emissions from cement production by 27%, according to an environmental impact analysis by Quantis U.S.
In January 2021, a three-year project chaired by GE-owned LM Wind Power and partially funded by the Innovation Fund Denmark was launched to develop commercially viable 100% recycling value chains. This latest project focuses on technologies that can be easily scaled up to meet the demands of increasing numbers of decommissioned blades going forward. After all, what good is having 100% recyclable blades if companies can’t get them to appropriate facilities?
Newer technologies including solvolysis and pyrolysis have also been developed to create additional ways to process fiberglass blades after decommissioning. Based in the US, Global Fiberglass Solutions uses the blades to create EcoPoly Pellets, with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tracking used to enable recycling certification from decommissioned blade to the end-product, which in this case could be warehouse pallets, flooring, or parking bollards. Global Fiberglass Solutions expects to be able to process some 6,000 to 7,000 blades annually at it Texas and Iowa facilities.
Texas and Iowa are two of the biggest wind power-producing states, so it makes sense to have these operations close by. Ideally, however, there would be convenient recycling facilities available close to every wind power plant, saving on costs and emissions associated with transporting blades for processing.
As with solar panels, a considerable part of the struggle over recycling wind power waste comes not from the blades themselves but from the lack of recycling infrastructure. With little focus on end-of-life policy in the US, and a lack of associated funding, there’s little incentive for companies to do anything other than send decommissioned blades to landfills. Some regulatory pressure would work wonders here, just as it has in Europe.
Building better wind turbines
Given the difficulties inherent in recycling fiberglass, there’s also an argument for making blades that are more amenable to end-of-life reuse and recycling. Thermoplastic resin blades may be preferable, for example, compared to carbon fiber or fiberglass, given that it is cheaper and easier to recycle using widely available facilities and processes.
Vestas Wind Systems A/S has already committed to producing zero waste wind turbines by 2040, recently unveiling new technology in May, 2021, that enables full recycling of wind turbine blades. This technology separates the glass or carbon fiber from the resin, and then the resin is separated further into base materials that can be used to build new blades. The technology was developed through a partnership between Vestas, Denmark’s Aarhus University, chemical producer Olin (OLN.N), and the Danish Technological Institute. The project aims to scale up the technology to meet recycling demands within three years and also has the potential to enable recycling of airplane and car parts.
LM Wind Power also acknowledges that end-of-life is just one aspect of making wind power truly sustainable. The company has been carbon neutral since 2018, but knows there’s waste in the supply chain as blades are produced. Efforts are underway to prevent this waste from ever occurring, both by using less raw material in the first pace and by using recycled materials, including recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) rather than balsa.
Wind power waste remains a concern, both in the US and worldwide, but the situation is not as dire as some critics of green energy make out. And solutions already exist to the problem of what to do with old wind turbine blades. The key is to turn these recycling projects into widely available services, which may require the federal government and/or states to step up with meaningful regulation and investments in recycling infrastructure.
And as for some of the other outdated and inaccurate claims made in the latest Moore movie, let’s just say that even a 2010 meta-analysis found that the average wind turbine generated 20 times more energy than it took to produce. Nowadays, that efficiency and sustainability is even better, with modern onshore wind turbines increasingly expected to continue providing energy for up to 35 years or more. Not that we want to let anyone off the hook, given that there are already plenty of wind turbine blades just waiting to be recycled and more to be decommissioned in the next few years.
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