What happens to the wind turbine blades when they stop working or get upgraded?
In a perfect world, renewable energy sources and productions would be ‘green’ in all phases of electricity generation – so far, wind turbine blades are not recyclable.
We all know that wind turbines don’t use fossil fuels to generate electricity.
There’s also an assumption that they wouldn’t pollute or waste, unlike other non-renewable energy productions. But wind turbines can be wasteful machines.
They are built to work for up to 25 years, but because they cannot be recycled, they will exist for a longer time.
But maybe there’s hope yet?
Why can’t turbine blades be recycled?
First, we need to understand what materials the wind turbine blades are made from.
Fiberglass, carbon fiber, and steel are the main materials used in wind turbines.
The fiberglass and carbon fiber are heated to combine in a lightweight resin that is still a strong blade for the turbines.
This composition is what makes it difficult to recycle the blades.
It’s also why there are so many blades (the size of Boeing airplanes) buried in landfills.
There are efforts being made to design new wind turbine blades that can be recycled.
These new blades would have a resin compound that is easier to separate and recycle or reuse.
Some are already attempting this: the Siemens Gamesa company is creating the ‘RecyclableBlade’ for offshore wind turbines.
The wind turbine blades that are in use now can’t be recycled, but the future ones could be.
Another thing to consider in recycling is that the efforts made to recycle something should have a net positive result on the environment compared to disposing or landfilling them.
Breaking down the blades is not the only step in recycling.
There should be no further waste or excessive carbon impact at each step in converting the blades into something new.
Though it’s difficult, there are some who have shown it’s possible to do this:
In Germany, Geocycle, Zajons, and HolcimAG recycled the blades into cement.
This partnership needed and managed to control all aspects of the project.
To cut down on transportation and costs, they sawed the blades down to size at the wind turbine farm – ingenuity like this is what it takes to create a net positive result.
Projects like this that promise and deliver on 100% recycling and environmentally conscious projects continue to inspire future innovations.
But for now, recycling is not the standard practice for wind turbine disposal.
That begs the question…
How long does it take wind turbine blades to decompose?
Wind turbines are enormous, which means the blades on them are massive too.
Some blades can be longer than a Boeing 747 wing, so it’s difficult for them to be taken somewhere to decompose at the end of their lifespan.
They have to be sawed down with a diamond-encrusted industrial saw into 3 pieces that are ‘small’ enough to be strapped to a trailer.
After they’ve been cut, these blades are buried up to 30ft under the ground, but there are so many turbines in a wind farm…
There’s an image of the Casper landfill in Wyoming where 870 blades lie in an eerie graveyard.
Looking at the scale of this burial, it’s impossible to forget the cost this renewable energy still requires the environment to pay.
The indestructible nature of the wind turbines means they can’t be crushed, recycled, or repurposed past their original design.
This means there is (and will be in the future) a need for wide-open land to bury or store these blades, but what a waste of space, right?
How do they dispose of wind turbine blades right now?
Landfilling wind turbines is a wasteful and inconvenient land expense, so there are efforts to dispose or repurpose the wind energy waste.
In the US, two large utilities (PacificCorp and MidAmerican Energy) have plans to recycle some of the old turbine blades instead of discarding them.
This project has been supported by the US Department of Energy with grants to break down and reuse the fiberglass from the used turbine blades.
The ‘Re-wind’ project is another partnership between the US, Ireland, and Northern Ireland University to reuse and repurpose the fiberglass blades.
They’re trying to get creative with civil engineering and find a purpose or need for those materials.
They’ve been successful already, and the old blades can help construct new things like powerline towers and roofs for affordable housing projects.
Re-wind is trying to ‘rewind’ time and give the blades another purpose beyond ‘wind’.
Wind turbine blades can’t be recycled right now because of how the blades are designed, but there’s still hope to make this renewable energy source less wasteful to the environment.