Wind turbines are designed to last approximately 20 to 25 years. While the main core of wind turbines are made from steel and copper, which are recyclable materials, turbine blades are made from composite glass or carbon material and resins, which are not as valued and are generally disposed at landfills. Turbine blades span up to 260 feet and weigh an average of 36 tons, posing a difficult disposal problem. Because of their size and weight, turbine blades typically need to be cut up before they can be moved. Even cut up, municipal landfills across the country are encountering issues with finding enough space for the massive number of blades. Some landfills cut the blades into three pieces and stuff the two smaller sections into the third, which is cheaper than renting crushing machines that can do the massive crushing job. According to NPR, more than 720,000 tons of blade material will be disposed of over the next 20 years in the United States—a figure that does not include newer, taller higher-capacity turbines. Disposal of these blades—a byproduct of increasing wind generation—is becoming a growing problem.
The waste disposal site located near Casper, Wyoming will soon be filled with over 1,000 decommissioned wind turbine blades and motor housing units. The Wyoming House of Representatives recently agreed to the introduction of a bill that would ban the disposal of wind turbine blades in the state. Wyoming House Bill 217 would make it a misdemeanor to dispose of turbine blades and would impose fines of up to $1,000 for convictions. The bill states:
“No person shall place a wind turbine blade, in whole or in part, in mixed municipal solid waste, a solid waste management facility, commercial solid waste management facility or a commercial waste incineration or disposal facility in Wyoming. No wind energy developer…and no facility permitted…shall discard or otherwise dispose of a wind turbine blade, in whole or in part, except by delivery to a facility that reuses, recycles, breaks down or repurposes the blades.”
Nationwide, there are nearly 50,000 wind turbines, with 2,700 being decommissioned since the energy boom of the 1970s. Bloomberg New Energy Finance is expecting up to 2 gigawatts worth of turbines to be refitted this year and next. Each turbine blade will need between 30 and 44.8 cubic yards of landfill space, using a total of 448,000 cubic yards of the 2.6 million yards set aside for construction and demolition material. This nearly 20 percent of total landfill space is enormous, given the amount of construction and demolition material disposed of in the United States. To prevent acres of abandoned and decaying wind farms, Wyoming laws require companies to provide bonds to cover the cost of decommissioning and disposal of turbines once they are taken out of service or abandoned.
Recycling turbine blades is more regulated in countries that have had wind power for decades. The European Union, for example, has waste management rules. Some European companies sell older and less efficient parts to customers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Veolia, a German global utilities and waste management company, found that decommissioned blades can be crushed and burned along with other components in cement kilns where the blades transform into solid fuel that can be used in the cement industry.
One American entrepreneur believes the blades can be recycled by grinding them up to make chocolate chip-sized pellets, which can be used for decking materials, pallets, and piping. A processing facility was opened in central Texas last year, and the company, Global Fiberglass Solutions, is leasing a second property near Des Moines, Iowa. The plant is capable of processing two to three tons per hour (approximately two to three blades per day) with hopes to increase to eight tons per hour.
But, these options do not begin to deal with the massive disposal problem ahead for those countries well into wind generation, which is rapidly including the United States.
With an increasing dependence on wind-generated electricity and the ever-growing size of the turbines, the issue of waste from wind turbines is significant and evolving. Most state governments did not provide for the disposal of wind turbine blades despite implementing renewable portfolio standards that require the generation of electricity from wind or other forms of renewable energy. It appears that many never even thought about the potential side effects of mandating new forms of energy generation such as wind and solar, and are only now learning the consequences of their edicts. Some states have ridiculously high percentage requirements for renewable generation that only exacerbates this problem. A market-based solution may appear to render the blades valuable for other uses, but until then, the problem continues to grow every year.