Worn out wind blades plugging up landfills

While wind farms generate “greenhouse gas free” electricity, there is increasing concern about the rapidly growing number of worn out blades ending up in landfills.

Those blades, housed on giant towers reaching over 200-feet in the sky, are starting to reach the end of their useful life (15 to 20 years) and are being taken down, cut up and hauled to dumps in Iowa, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Adding to the spent blade disposal problem is utilities are retrofitting existing wind farms with longer blades and more powerful generating units. For example, “PacifiCorp is embarking on a $200 million “repowering” operation at its Dayton wind farm, retrofitting each of the farm’s 117 towers,” as The Columbian reporter Anthony Macuk described last June.

PacifiCorp is raising its Dayton towers from 200 to 250 feet to accommodate the new blades, which add 35 percent to the site’s generating capacity.

The good news is those new blades are shipped to the Port of Vancouver and trucked to southeastern Washington. Unfortunately, the bad news is the old blades are likely to go to landfills.

“Tens of thousands of aging blades are coming down from steel towers around the world and most have nowhere to go but landfills,” Bloomberg reporter Chris Martin summarized earlier this month.

Even though more than 90 percent of the decommissioned wind units are recycled, the specialized fiberglass and composite blades are waste.

According to German fiberglass manufacturer, Ahlstrom-Munksjö Dettingen, the wind industry will generate 50,000 tons of blade waste in 2020, but that will quadruple to 225,000 tons by 2034.

Recycling blades may sound simple, but it’s complicated.

“The wind turbine blades are a toxic amalgam of unique composites, fiberglass, epoxy, polyvinyl chloride foam, polyethylene terephthalate foam, balsa wood, and polyurethane coatings,” Principia Scientific International, a London-based group of scientists, states. “Basically, there is just too much plastic-composite-epoxy crapola that isn’t worth recycling.”

Scientists are exploring ways to separate resins from fibers and to give small chunks new life as pellets or boards.

For example, 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,” NPR reports.

The market potential for companies, such as Global Fiberglass, is huge.

In the U.S. alone, about 8,000 blades 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, Martin reports.

Today, wind generates 6.5 percent of our nation’s electricity from more than 58,000 turbines. Since 2005, we have constructed an estimated 3,000 wind towers a year. Now longer blades and more powerful generators are coming on line as electrical generation from non-CO2 sources, such as hydro, wind and solar projects, ramp up.

The wind industry has set installation records over the last couple years. That trend is expected to continue with global wind capacity predicted to double in the next five years, according to the Global Wind Energy Council. This growth trend is thanks, in part, to a developing offshore wind market and larger wind turbines with longer blades.

Also fueling wind energy growth are renewable energy government mandates. For example, California has directed that half of its electricity comes from renewables by 2030. Hawaii established a goal of 100 percent renewables by 2045.

Now elected officials need to direct more of their attention to finding ways to recycle wind blades. Landfilling them is not a permanent solution.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com