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Wind turbine blades cause issue with waste

Caitlin Ritchie
By Caitlin Ritchie October 28th, 2019
3 min read
For business

Wind turbine blades are difficult to transport because of their size.

Wind power continues to grow in popularity across the country, and especially in Texas. In fact, the Lone Star State produces 30 percent of the nation’s electricity generated by wind. Wind power is a form of clean, renewable energy and can benefit the environment through reducing the country’s dependency on fossil fuels.

However, while the energy generated by wind turbines is clean and green, outdated turbine blades are not. With blades spanning up to 260 feet and weighing an average of 36 tons, old or broken blades pose a difficult disposal problem in the U.S.

Currently, there are two common disposal methods for turbine blades – burning them or throwing them in a landfill. According to NPR, more than 720,000 tons of blade material will be disposed of over the next 20 years. With an increasing dependence on wind-generated electricity and the ever-growing size of the turbines themselves, the issue of waste from wind turbines is one that cannot be ignored.

Turbine blades are difficult to recycle

On average, wind turbines are designed to last approximately 20 to 25 years. The majority of wind turbines are made from steel and copper, which are widely recyclable materials. However, the blades of these turbines are a different matter entirely.

Turbine blades tend to be made from composite glass or carbon material. Unlike steel and copper, these materials are not as valuable when recycled, so many turbine owners turn to less green disposal methods, such as disposing of decommissioned blades in landfills.

Owners of wind turbines frequently pay for collection services to transport the massive blades to landfills. However, because of their size and weight, turbine blades typically need to be cut up before they can be moved. Disassembling these blades generates increased time and energy spent simply on disposal.

Once they reach the landfill, the turbine blades take up a large amount of space. Municipal landfills across the country have encountered issues with finding enough space for the massive number of blades while maintaining room for other forms of waste.

The green energy generated by wind turbines appears to be at least partially offset by their lack of recyclability. However, there are companies searching for an answer to this issue.

Texas manufacturing plant gives new life to old blades

Global Fiberglass Solutions (GFS) is working to provide a solution for the growing issue of blade waste. With recycling and manufacturing plants in Sweetwater, TX, and Newton, IA, GFS claims that it “provides industrial fiberglass waste recycling services to industries worldwide.” In addition, GFS manufactures fibers, pellets, construction materials, and more from the materials recycled in its plants.

The manufacturing plant in Sweetwater, TX, currently produces manufacturing-grade pellets under the brand name EcoPoly Pellets. According to a GFS press release, they are “thermoplastic fiberglass pellet[s] usable in injection mold and extrusion manufacturing processes.” The EcoPoly Pellets are made in part from recycled wind turbine blade material, giving new life to the blades that were previously viewed as unrecyclable.

In the press release, GFS states explains this recycled pellet “represents the company’s innovation in repurposing waste material (decommissioned wind turbine blades) into green manufactured products that are commercially viable.”

GFS also has plans to improve the productivity of its plant in Sweetwater, TX. Currently, the plant is capable of processing two to three tons per hour (approximately two to three blades per day). However, the company hopes this will increase to eight tons per hour by the end of 2019.

In addition, corporations across the globe are searching for green disposal options for turbine blades. Veolia, a German global utilities and waste management company, has also found that decommissioned blades can be crushed and burned along with other components in cement kilns. Through this process, the blades transform into solid fuel that can be used in the cement industry and replace traditional fossil fuels.

Caitlin Ritchie 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.