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How could recycling blades resolve wind turbine waste?

Caitlin Cosper
By Caitlin Cosper February 11th, 2021
For business

Recycling old blades could solve the issue of wind turbine waste.

Wind turbines provide clean and affordable electricity to millions across the country. In fact, the U.S. is home to more than 58,000 active wind turbines. And Texas alone generated more than 8,200 megawatt-hours of electricity from wind in October of last year.

Wind energy offers a renewable alternative to fossil fuels such as oil and gas – which emit harmful chemicals into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. However, wind turbines are not without their faults.

In terms of waste, wind turbine blades present a major problem. In recent years, blade sizes have grown from about 145 feet in 1997 to about 367 feet in 2017. Current models of turbine blades can also weigh 36 tons on average. The problem is that their massive size makes them difficult to dispose of when they break or are decommissioned.

So, while wind energy is green, wind turbine waste creates a new environmental question – can the wind industry address the waste issues associated with outdated turbine blades? The answer may lie in creative recycling.

Wind turbine waste stems from disposal methods

The average wind turbine lifespan is up to 25 years. But the blades have a shorter lifespan, averaging around 20 years at the most. Turbine blades are normally made from composite glass or carbon material, which has a shorter lifespan than materials such as steel or copper.

So, when it comes time to replace blades, most end up in a landfill. Because of their size, the blades are cut into pieces before they are hauled away by collection services.

But even in fragments, turbine blades take up a massive amount of landfill space. And because they are made to withstand hurricane-force winds, turbine blades will sit in landfills for decades to come with little deterioration or breakdown.

The green energy generated by wind turbines becomes partially offset by the fate of their blades. However, there are some in the wind industry who are searching for ways to recycle blades and resolve the issue of wind turbine waste altogether.

New life for old blades

Green energy problems call for creative solutions, and many are rising to that challenge. In southern Ireland, the Cork Institute of Technology is currently testing whether outdated blades could be recycled to build a pedestrian bridge. The blades would replace traditional steel girders and stay out of landfills. If successful, this experimental bridge should be completed by April of this year and could serve as a model for future bridges.

This initiative is led by the Re-Wind project, which aims to solve the issue of wind turbine waste through sustainable repurposing and recycling. Re-Wind hopes to see turbine blades recycled into electrical transmission towers, bridges, and other civil engineering projects. These projects would keep decommissioned blades out of landfills and give them a new purpose in nearby communities. In the next six months, the Re-Wind team predicts it will have the first two large-scale turbine blade projects active, including the pedestrian bridge in southern Ireland.

General Electric Renewable Energy has also discovered a new way to recycle old blades. The company recently revealed an agreement with Veolia that turns old blades into raw materials to use in cement. GE Renewable Energy expects this will lead to a 27 percent reduction in carbon emissions.

Additionally, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory are working to create turbine blades that are more recyclable than traditional models. Current turbine blades are made using thermoset resin, which is not recyclable. However, these researchers discovered using thermoplastic resin as a material for blades would “make wind turbine blades more recyclable, and can also enable longer, lighter-weight, and lower-cost blades.”

 

Caitlin Cosper

Energy Expert

Caitlin is a writer within the energy and power industry. Born in Georgia, she attended the University of Georgia before earning her master’s in English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

[Andreas Nesslinger]/Shutterstock