By Alexandra Nikopoulou
Have you ever wondered what happens to old wind turbines? I bet not. We are so accustomed to hearing about the benefits of wind power that all too often the problem of wind turbine waste is overlooked. But it turns out – it is a problem, and one that will only get worse, unless we can start cooking up some solutions now. Luckily there have been recent advances in wind turbine waste management, and with any luck, we’ll be able to go back to singing the praises of wind energy.
Harnessing the Power of the Wind: A Promising Solution Turned Sour
Renewable energy – including wind energy – has been a hot commodity in recent years, as nations seek to decrease their environmental footprint and the consequences of long-term reliance on oil, gas, coal and other fossil fuels. However, lately concerns have been raised over the sustainability of wind turbines and whether or not they are as eco-friendly as they appear to be.
This issue surfaced earlier this year when a photo of a landfill in Casper, Wyoming went viral. The photo showed large turbine blades cut into pieces and stacked in a landfill. The blades would then be buried under the sand. The photo raised harsh criticism and opened a discussion around the lifespan of wind turbines and what happens when they are decommissioned.
The Problem of Wind Turbine Blade Waste
Wind turbines are 85-90% recyclable; it’s the turbine blades that are the problem. Unlike the rest of the turbine components, wind turbine blades are made of resin and fiberglass, making reuse and recycling very difficult.
Another challenge is their size. Wind turbine blades can reach up to 300 ft (91m) long – that’s longer than the wing of a Boeing 747. Their size means they can’t easily be picked up and hauled away. First, specialized equipment must be used to cut them up into three pieces. Then, they are strapped onto a tractor-trailer – one blade per truck.
The next step is what has some people up in arms: they are transported to huge landfills where they are buried under tons of sand, to lay there forever. This does not sound very environmentally-friendly. In the US, wind turbine landfills can be found not only in Casper, but also Lake Mills, Iowa and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Wind Turbine Waste: A Growing Problem
How much of an issue is wind turbine waste? The first wind turbines were installed in the 1990s and they are just now reaching the end of their lifespan. In the US alone, it is estimated that as many as 8000 decommissioned wind turbine blades will be replaced every year for the next four years. And it will only get worse: the blades coming down now were built at a time when installations were just a fraction of what they are now.
Europe is somewhat ahead of the game, as they’ve been dealing with wind energy waste for much longer. The continent’s limited land area coupled with the EU’s waste management rules mean that more blades have been repurposed, recycled or had parts sold to Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Nevertheless, it is still expected that some 3800 blades will come down every year through 2022.
Burying our Heads (and Turbine Blades) in the Sand is No Solution
As is evident, the inability to easily recycle blades poses a great challenge in a field where renewable energy was meant to decrease environmental impact.
Small municipalities face even more issues when trying to deal with wind turbine waste. Adding to the already high cost of disassembling and cutting the blades in order to transport them to landfills, Rob Van Vleet, an expert from the Kimball Wind Project in Nebraska, highlights the fact that cities may need to acquire more landfill space to be able to accommodate both the blades and municipal trash. This means increased expenses for local governance.
However, in the case of Casper, the waste division manager claims that taking in the blades is actually profitable. The city is paid $675,000 to store wind turbine blades indefinitely, income which can be used for infrastructure and other services. And wind turbine blades are relatively harmless, compared to discarded oil equipment.
How does burying blades in municipal landfills affect locals? The American Wind Energy Association claims that dumping old blades in landfills is in fact a safe, cheap alternative, one that has significantly less impact on people’s lives than municipal waste in landfills.
But surely landfills aren’t the best long-term solution. For one thing, landfills have limited space and cannot be expanded indefinitely.
Wind Turbine Waste Management: New Horizons
Turbine blades are built to withstand gale-force winds, which is why they are so hard to repurpose or recycle. But that hasn’t stopped wind energy companies from trying.
Two companies attempting this impossible mission are Veolia and Global Fiberglass Solutions. Veolia, a French company that specializes in waste management and energy services, has experimented with grinding the blades into dust, and then extracting chemicals produced in the process. They are still developing their ideas, but so far, there is considerable interest.
Meanwhile over in Texas, Global Fiberglass Solutions has achieved more tangible results. Their idea is to break the turbine blades down into chocolate-chip-like pellets and fibre boards that can then be used for walls and flooring. CEO Don Lilly says that they can process 99.9% of a blade, and that each of their recycling plants could handle up to 6000-7000 blades per year. And they’re just gearing up, ready to take on more as demand for their product increases in the construction industry.
Green Energy / Un-Green Waste: Facing a Real Problem
The search for ways to reuse or recycle wind turbine blades is just the start. Many are hoping that more will be invested now, at the beginning of the blades’ lifecycle, already planning ahead for their eventual demise. And some manufacturers are committing to be responsible for the turbines they produce, even once they are past their use-by date.
The apparently unforeseen waste issue with wind turbine blades has sparked a broader discussion of the true “greenness” of the renewable energy sector. While the energy produced may be carbon-free, and the non-recyclable waste “cleaner” than that coming from the oil sector, we need to have a real conversation about the environmental impact of all areas of renewable energy. As turbine blades continue to pile up in landfills, let this be a wake-up call for us to take urgent action to reach the true goal of waste-free green energy.
About the Author
Alexandra is a PhD candidate and a researcher focusing in Middle-Eastern security, regional balance and tribal affairs. She is working in the non-profit sector in the fields of education and employment of young graduates in Greece and has significant volunteer experience, focused mainly on education around disabilities. She holds great interest in Indigenous history and tribal affairs, not only in the Americas but in Europe, Africa and Asia as well.