The Big Recyclability Problem of Wind Turbines

Image: Benjamin Rassmussen/Bloomberg Green

Wind energy has seen impressive growth in the United States over the past decade with offshore wind standing as the next big phase in renewable energy expansion. However, now that the first generation of wind turbines are nearing the end of their lifespan, we’re being faced with a growing sustainability concern: what to do with the massive turbine blades.

As Bloomberg wrote,

“Wind power is generated via massive fiberglass blades, each of which can be longer than a Boeing 747 wing. Built to withstand hurricane-force winds, the blades can’t easily be crushed—or recycled or repurposed for that matter. It’s a curious conundrum: Tens of thousands of blades must be replaced each year and most have nowhere to go but landfills.

Another factor to consider is the use of heavy-duty vehicles necessary to detach and transport turbine blades to a recycling or waste facility.

The Recycling Options: As the BBC reported, Don Lilly, chief executive of Global Fiberglass Solutions in Bellevue, Washington has been working to transform fiberglass composites into small pellets he calls EcoPoly. The pellets can then be turned into injectable plastics, or highly waterproof boards that can be used in construction, he says.

Another solution is called pyrolysis: after first chopping up the blades, pyrolysis breaks up the composite fibers in ovens with an inert atmosphere, at about 450-700C. The process recovers fibers other industries can reuse for glues, paints, and concrete.

However, carbon fiber blades traditionally haven’t been recyclable at all. This is an issue the wind industry is working to solve.

Why This Matters: Some analysts predict that 2020 will be a big year for wind energy in the United States. Though some attacks on the environmental footprint of renewables like solar panels and EVs have been driven by the fossil fuel industry, we do still have to mine rare earth minerals for a lot of this technology with comes with a serious human and environmental cost. This means that as we develop, deploy, and upgrade green technology like wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries we’ll have to think of how to make these important innovations more circular and equitable for the communities where they’re deployed.

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