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Wind Turbine Blades Can’t Be Recycled, So They’re Piling Up in Landfills

Wind Turbine Blades Can’t Be Recycled, So They’re Piling Up in Landfills

Companies are searching for ways to deal with the tens of thousands of blades that have reached the end of their lives.

A wind turbine’s blades can be longer than a Boeing 747 wing, so at the end of their lifespan they can’t just be hauled away. First, you need to saw through the lissome fiberglass using a diamond-encrusted industrial saw to create three pieces small enough to be strapped to a tractor-trailerThe municipal landfill in Casper, Wyoming, is the final resting place of 870 blades whose days making renewable energy have come to end. The severed fragments look like bleached whale bones nestled against one another.

“That’s the end of it for this winter,” said waste technician Michael Bratvold, watching a bulldozer bury them forever in sand. “We’ll get the rest when the weather breaks this spring.”

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Fragments of wind turbine blades await burial at the Casper Regional Landfill in Wyoming.
Photographer: Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Green
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.

Built to withstand hurricane-force winds, the blades can’t easily be crushed, recycled or repurposed. That’s created an urgent search for alternatives in places that lack wide-open prairies. In the U.S., they go to the handful of landfills that accept them, in Lake Mills, Iowa; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Casper, where they will be interred in stacks that reach 30 feet under.

“The wind turbine blade will be there, ultimately, forever,” said Bob Cappadona, chief operating officer for the North American unit of Paris-based Veolia Environnement SA, which is searching for better ways to deal with the massive waste. “Most landfills are considered a dry tomb.”

“The last thing we want to do is create even more environmental challenges.”

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Each blade is cut into pieces for transport and stacked for efficiency.
Photographer: Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Green

To prevent catastrophic climate change caused by burning fossil fuels, many governments and corporations have pledged to use only clean energy by 2050. Wind energy is one of the cheapest ways to reach that goal.

The electricity comes from turbines that spin generators. Modern models emerged after the 1973 Arab oil embargo, when shortages compelled western governments to find alternatives to fossil fuels. The first wind farm in the U.S. was installed in New Hampshire in 1980, and California deployed thousands of turbines east of San Francisco across the Altamont Pass.

The first models were expensive and inefficient, spinning fast and low. After 1992, when Congress passed a tax credit, manufacturers invested in taller and more powerful designs. Their steel tubes rose 260 feet and sported swooping fiberglass blades. A decade later, General Electric Co. made its 1.5 megawatt model—enough to supply 1,200 homes in a stiff breeze—an industry standard.

In the European Union, which strictly regulates material that can go into landfills, some blades are burned in kilns that create cement or in power plants. But their energy content is weak and uneven and the burning fiberglass emits pollutants.

In a pilot project last year, Veolia tried grinding them to dust, looking for chemicals to extract. “We came up with some crazy ideas,” Cappadona said. “We want to make it a sustainable business. There’s a lot of interest in this.”

One start-up, Global Fiberglass Solutions, developed a method to break down blades and press them into pellets and fiber boards to be used for flooring and walls. The company started producing samples at a plant in Sweetwater, Texas, near the continent’s largest concentration of wind farms. It plans another operation in Iowa.

“We can process 99.9% of a blade and handle about 6,000 to 7,000 blades a year per plant,” said Chief Executive Officer Don Lilly. The company has accumulated an inventory of about one year’s worth of blades ready to be chopped up and recycled as demand increases, he said. “When we start to sell to more builders, we can take in a lot more of them. We’re just gearing up.”

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Workers are experimenting with methods to fit more blades in their graves.
Photographer: Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Green

Until then, municipal and commercial dumps will take most of the waste, which the American Wind Energy Association in Washington says is safest and cheapest.

“Wind turbine blades at the end of their operational life are landfill-safe, unlike the waste from some other energy sources, and represent a small fraction of overall U.S. municipal solid waste,” according to an emailed statement from the group. It pointed to an Electric Power Research Institute study that estimates all blade waste through 2050 would equal roughly .015% of all the municipal solid waste going to landfills in 2015 alone.

Back in Wyoming, in the shadow of a snow-capped mountain, lies Casper, where wind farms represent both the possibilities and pitfalls of the shift from fossil fuels. The boom-bust oil town was founded at the turn of the 19th century. On the south side, bars that double as liquor stores welcome cigarette smokers and day drinkers. Up a gentle northern slope, a shooting club boasts of cowboy-action pistol ranges. Down the road, the sprawling landfill bustles and a dozen wind turbines spin gently on the horizon. They tower over pumpjacks known as nodding donkeys that pull oil from wells.

“People around here don’t like change,” said Morgan Morsett, a bartender at Frosty’s Bar & Grill. “They see these wind turbines as something that’s hurting coal and oil.”

But the city gets $675,000 to house turbine blades indefinitely, which can help pay for playground improvements and other services. Landfill manager Cynthia Langston said the blades are much cleaner to store than discarded oil equipment and Casper is happy to take the thousand blades from three in-state wind farms owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s PacifiCorp. Warren Buffett’s utility has been replacing the original blades and turbines with larger, more powerful models after a decade of operation.

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Wind farms, common in Wyoming, overlook the Casper landfill.
Photographer: Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Green

While acknowledging that burying blades in perpetuity isn’t ideal, Bratvold, the special waste technician, was surprised by some of the negative reactions when a photo of some early deliveries went viral last summer. On social media, posters derided the inability to recycle something advertised as good for the planet, and offered suggestions of reusing them as links in a border wall or roofing for a homeless shelter.

“The backlash was instant and uninformed,” Bratvold said. “Critics said they thought wind turbines were supposed to be good for the environment and how can it be sustainable if it ends up in a landfill?”

“I think we’re doing the right thing.”

In the meantime, Bratvold and his co-workers have set aside about a half dozen blades and in coming months, they’ll experiment with methods to squeeze them into smaller footprints. They’ve tried bunkers, berms and even crushing them with the bulldozer, but the tracks kept slipping off the smooth blades. There’s little time to waste. Spring is coming, and when it does, the inexorable march of blades will resume.

By:  Chris Martin
February 5, 2020, 5:00 AM EST

LINK:  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-02-05/wind-turbine-blades-can-t-be-recycled-so-they-re-piling-up-in-landfills?utm_campaign=news&utm_medium=bd&utm_source=applene

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Comment:

Rather than considering the damaged blades as a waste product, consider them as a building material. I would think that an industrious company could find uses for “free” or actually for payment to remove the spent blades for potential applications. The blade manufacturers could be the initiators of application development for used blades. Maybe we could get OC to initiate an industry-sponsored committee to get things going. We could get partners like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Navy Experimental Lab as we have in the past. I would think that ACMA would help.

Here are some ideas:

  • Temporary or permanent bridges – pedestrian and vehicular. Some engineering needed, but they are strong enough.
  • Pads for drilling rigs and roads for permafrost areas.
  • Reservoirs for water runoff/collection – bury them and let them provide a service
  • Walls and/or roofs for large buildings – factories, warehouses, hurricane and tornado shelters … Architects could have fun with ideas.
  • Could cut the blades to a functional size with a high-pressure water jet, like in the lab, only larger.

Mark

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Comment:

Recycling is a hot topic these days…..

At the IACMI ( https://iacmi.org/ ) meeting a couple of weeks ago—recycling and the circular economy was both a theme and woven through many of the presentations – including the wind energy update. There was also a “Circular Economy Opportunities for Polymer Composites Focus Group” discussion. ACAM is heavily involved with the efforts.

It is amazing that when the institute was created just a few years ago – recycling was on the technical roadmap, but most admit it was more of a placeholder than a real initiative – not anymore.

There has also been an Composite Recycling Technology Center created in Washington (state) — https://www.compositerecycling.org/ I think the aerospace influence helped here.

Bruce

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Comment:

David G. once studied recycled SMC technology. Same idea – grind and reuse.
I believe a company was formed near Lancaster. Ultimately went bankrupt.

Reply: Yes, in a former life I did that.   Given the size and uniformity and strength of these parts,  repurposing seems to be the big idea here.  Regards, David

Large blades could be repurposed for breakwater/ocean erosion prevention if economic/practical way could be found to move them.
(Design a 1-way airplane using blades for wings?/sarc). Actually dirigibles are making a comeback for applications like this.

Can blades be cut in half, then pile-driven into sand to build piers?

Also, for avalanche control mountain slopes. Still has the transportation problem.

Also for blast control to protect transformers, military installations, and other high value targets.

Also for protection from lightning.

Eliminate government subsidies to avoid creating problem in the first place. The birds will thank you.

David

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Comment: 

I am Dave G’s grandson.

An idea is small circular housing. The structure of the curve could be used to make round housing by overlapping the sides then sealing. The hollow inside can be filled with insulation.

Sketch:

Small circular house made from retired turbine blades

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ben

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Comment: 

Some great ideas here guys. These are my thoughts post ERCOM, Pheonix and other “recycling SMC and composites efforts”:

  1. I agree with David and Mark and Dutch and Kevin and many others that old Wind Turbines, a complete composite structural part, should be “Re-purposed” or Re-used with as little rework as possible. This would maximize continuous, oriented reinforcement value. Shredding and “recycling” short fiber filler is a DUMBEST idea as it results in a very expensive and ineffective filler.
    1. Mercedes Benz said: “Thank you Composites Industry for proving that SMC can be recycled” – then, they used even less SMC. “Recyclable label is just propaganda. Thermoplastics are “recyclable” but are the plastic waste outnumbers the fish in the ocean. People are simply undisciplined. This is post-industrial waste so manageable. IMHO
  2. Agree with piers, pilings, walls of all kinds, big buildings (especially on permafrost which is melting rapidly) etc.
  3. My favorite application and perhaps easiest to implement is for the roads (not bridges which have to be certified…). Blades across the highway in Northern areas would dramatically reduce cracking and salt corrosion of concrete/asphalt roadways. Also, the tapered end could be a benefit to provide gradient for water run-off.
    1. The basic idea: slice the blades in two parts along the spar line then lay them on top of the gravel (which side up I am not sure of). Pour concrete over it and you will have a road to last 1000 years.

By the way, road usage of fiberglass in China is larger application than the Wind Blades, which is much larger than in the USA. They use heavily migrated assembled roving layers which are wound first for this by-product. This is another example where our arrogance and bias against Chinese is proving that “we” are the fools.

The challenge is that this has to be driven by the State governments. So, a pilot project as close to the Wind Blades graveyard as possible should be priority one.

Who has a connection to the MOT Wyoming?

Where are the other sites?

NIST funding awaylability?

Let’s find the Transportation approval department and a local roads construction company and we can talk Undead Wind Blades live again.

Regards,

Dr. D

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Comment: 

Everyone has their own ideas for the use of these blades. I think the way you could recycle the blades would be to use them along a pier in place of the existing materials. The could be driven into the soil – sealed together. They would out last forever. That is my thought on the subject.

Bud

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Comment: 

Great application. Sea walls, all the way around

Threatened cities.

Dutch

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