Used Wind Turbine Blades Pose a Growing Waste Problem

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What happens to wind turbine blades after their operational lifespan ends? Although wind power is considered one of the cleanest types of energy, there are a lot of waste management challenges that will have to be solved as the medium becomes a go-to energy source.  

The challenge presented with discarding a turbine blade is that they can’t be recycled. They are made from durable materials that can withstand hurricane-force winds and the wear that comes from weather, time and precipitation.

The average wind turbine blade is 50 meters long. In order to be discarded, they have to be cut into smaller pieces that can fit onto the back of tractor-trailers before being driven to landfills.  

According to recent reporting from Bloomberg Green, you need to cut through the lissome fiberglass that blades are made from using a diamond-encrusted industrial saw. Each blade usually needs to be cut three times to render the discarded pieces to a manageable size.  

Bloomberg Green reports that tens of thousands of aging blades are being removed from steel towers around the world, and most end up in landfills. It’s estimated that in the U.S. in the next four years, 32,000 wind turbine blades will come to the end of their production lifespan.

The article goes on to say that wind power is carbon-free and about 85% of turbine components, including steel, copper wire, electronics and gearing can be recycled or reused. But the fiberglass blades are the hardest materials to reuse and recycle. Heavy-duty trucks can only carry one blade at a time, making transportation costs another barrier in the process. Scientists are trying to find better ways to separate resins from fibers so that the waste material can be reused.

Bloomberg Green reports that one company, Global Fiberglass Solutions, has developed a method to break down blades and make pellets and boards that can be used for flooring and walls. The company opened a plant in Sweetwater, Texas, close to the country’s largest concentration of wind farms.

“We can process 99.9% of a blade and handle about 6,000 to 7,000 blades a year per plant,” the article reports Don Lilly, CEO of Global Fiberglass, as saying. “When we start to sell to more builders, we can take in a lot more of them. We’re just gearing up.”

The growing problem of discarded wind turbines is one that will need to be addressed as soon as possible as wind power becomes more and more prevalent in the U.S. and the rest of the world. 

You can read Bloomberg Green’s full article on the disposal of used wind turbines here.

Photo: A wind turbine blade being transported.

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