Wind energy is one of the country’s
leaders in advancing the transition to clean energy. Thanks to technological advancements,
prices for this renewable energy source are plummeting. The price of wind
energy has fallen 70 percent in the last decade, making it the cheapest source
of renewable energy on the market. However, as older projects reach the end of
their lifespan, the question of how to sustainably dispose of them is coming to
Wind turbines can operate for 20 to 30 years. While most of the
components of a turbine can be recycled or sold, the blades are finding
themselves in landfills across the country. Fortunately, according to the
American Wind Energy Association, unlike other energy source waste, wind
turbine blades are made from non-toxic fiberglass and therefore completely
landfill-safe. Although turbines blades are large, the Electric Power Research
Institute (EPRI) reports that all turbine blade waste through 2050 represents
of all the municipal solid waste going to landfills every year.
In Casper, Wyoming, accepting turbine blades at the Casper
Regional Solid Waste Facility has been an economic benefit for the community. Since
May 2019, the city of Casper has received more
than $600,000 for taking the blades. This revenue has been used to help
keep trash collection and other service rates low.
According to the EPRI, it is estimated that there will be 2.1 million – 4
million tons of cumulative blade waste combined through 2050. In
comparison, 2.1 million tons of plastic cups and plates end up in landfills
every 2.5 years. By 2050, plastic cups and plates would make up 25.2 million
tons of waste, and require 12 times more landfill space than all expected
national turbine blade waste in the next 30 years.
The need for a recycling process that is environmentally
responsible is growing, and it is entirely possible. Currently, 85 to 90
percent of a wind turbine’s parts can be recycled or sold. This includes the
foundation, tower, gear box and generator. Fiberglass used to make blades is also
reusable, and can be randomly rearranged, flattened into a sheet or even woven
into a fabric. In Europe, some blades are repurposed as sound barriers or
thermal insulation. In the United States, there are few companies that recycle
turbine blades and the need for recycling processes is creating a business
opportunity. Startups like Global
Fiberglass Solutions are developing processes to break down wind turbines
blades and transform them into other useful materials, such as railroad ties
and panels. “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.
So, how exactly are turbine blades recycled? Currently, there
are two answers to that question. Blades can be recycled in one of two ways:
Mechanical or Thermal Recycling.
Mechanical Recycling entails cutting and dismantling blades on-site. The
parts are shredded into raw fiberglass material that produces fine and course
particulates that can be mixed with rock, plastic or other fillers. The mixture
is then turned into thermoplastic fiberglass pellets or panels for use in
various products. These pellets can also be used in injection molding and extrusion
manufacturing processes, decking boards, warehouse pallets, parking bollards,
manhole covers, building walkways and weather-resistant siding.
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Thermal Recycling is essentially crushing and burning blades. The composition
portion is combustible when burned and can be used for electricity generation
or industrial processes, such as cement production. In fact, thermal recycling
saves concrete production 16 percent of its overall carbon dioxide emissions. The
leftover glass and carbon fibers go through what is referred to as “co-processing.”
This is where fibers are mixed with fillers and reused in concrete, paint and
Another 44 gigawatts of wind is expected, which will
generate another $62 billion for the economy and power an additional 15 million
homes. As more projects come online, the necessity for proper recycling and
disposal of wind turbines will increase. The ability to more fully recycle
turbines and create other useful products will make this already-carbon-free
power source even more sustainable – and that’s just smart!
For more information, check out our fact
sheet on turbine recycling and disposal!