Blade Runners

Phased-out wind turbines are not so eco-friendly

Progressive solutions are not without their ironies, and the wind power industry is encountering one of its first long-term hurdles as we enter 2020. A Bloomberg report earlier this week detailed how most wind turbine blades are not reusable—and are therefore starting to fill up landfills worldwide.


Wind turbine blades in a landfill outside Casper, Wyoming.—Google images

The key here is to figure out a recyclable method (which forward-thinking renewables companies like Siemens Gamesa and others have already been working on) for these mammoth pieces of metal. A 5-kW turbine (average residential size, 18-foot rotor diameter) produces around 10,000 kWh per year in 12-mph average winds, which is about 100% of what an average U.S. home requires, according to AWEA. At the larger end of the spectrum, a 100-kW turbine (60-foot diameter) in these conditions will generate around 250,000 kWh per year. Other statistics say wind turbines can be as long as 130 feet.

Splitting the difference, let’s say blades average about 50 feet in diameter. That’s a modest estimation to begin with; and means you’re hauling ten basketball hoops worth of material for one blade, on average. The size alone begins to fill up landfills quite fast.

The next issue is the material. Blades are typically made of resins of glass fiber-reinforced polyester, glass fiber-reinforced epoxy, and carbon fiber-reinforced epoxy, AWEA says. Combining glass fibers with a resin matrix results in composites that are strong, lightweight, corrosion-resistant, and dimensionally stable. It does not however, cater to easily recyclable material.

Wednesday’s Bloomberg article by Chris Martin—which specifically profiles the Casper Regional Landfill in Wyoming—details the problem, which is only getting worse:

“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, according to BloombergNEF. It’s going to get worse: Most were built more than a decade ago, when installations were less than a fifth of what they are now.”

Martin goes on to describe the reasons why these blades cannot be easily recycled. They are made of the aformentioned fiberglass composites in order to stand hurricane-force winds, and therefore can’t be broken down, crushed, or repurposed like other metals. An NPR article from last September on the same subject estimated 720,000 tons of blade material will require disposal in the United States over the next 20 years alone.

Companies are frantically searching for alternative materials. In January 2019, Texas company Global Fiberglass Solutions announced it had successfully created recyclable “pellets” to combat the problem. GFS’ “EcoPoly” pellets can be used to make decking boards, warehouse pallets, parking bollards, and more, the company said. More importantly, they can be customized; the company runs tests on them regularly to find new items that can be made from pellets.

This might be one solution, but it’s clear that the mounting issue requires additional attention for the future.


One Response to “Blade Runners”

  1. Why are these blades “coming down”? Are they cracked, chipped or otherwise damaged? Can they not be refurbished & reused. This single use scenario sounds awfully like NASA mindset in rocket launches. It took Space-X to show them how to improve material efficiency.

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