The tragedy of wind turbine blade disposal

Wind turbines in the Tehachapi-Mojave Wind Resource Area near the city of Mojave, Calif., on January 8, 2019. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Plans for dealing with deteriorated turbine blades are insufficient and lead to absurd amounts of material and land waste.

There are around 58,000 wind turbines in the U.S. according to the U.S. Wind Turbine Database, with an estimated 3,000 more planned to be erected by the end of this year. While this looks like good news, it brings with it a problem that is becoming more intimidating as time progresses.

Turbine blades need to be replaced as frequently as every 10 years due to natural deterioration, damage or upgrades. As more turbines go up, it becomes a major issue to deal with so much waste.

There are currently no plans to dispose of retired blades in an environmentally friendly manner. The current process for getting rid of these blades is to pile them up and cover them with dirt like a mass grave.

Tossing these massive 120-foot pieces of fiberglass is incredibly wasteful and antithetical to the green aspect of this energy source. There are three alternatives to unsustainable landfills: recycling, repurposing and repairing.

There are ways to recycle these blades, but it is not easy. These long, white pieces of fiberglass are built to withstand the immense forces of hurricanes and tornadoes. They are designed specifically to be difficult to break.

Companies have been able to burn the blades in kilns to generate electricity, but this results in noxious pollutants and does not produce much power. They have also tried to grind blades into dust to extract chemicals, but with little success.

Two promising recycling methods have been pressing the blades into boards to use for construction and shredding the fiberglass into ingredients for cement. Neither of these have been fully implemented at an industrial scale.

While recycling increases the versatility of the waste material, the process increases the carbon footprint, which is not ideal for what is intended to be an environmentally friendly product.

Alternatively, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) has expressed its support of repurposing the blades rather than recycling. AWEA recommends using the blades as bridges, benches, playground equipment, or roofing.

Repurposing is being able to find alternative uses for the retired material without having to go through industrial processes that emit greenhouse gasses. The only major downside to repurposing is that it generally is not as suitable as material originally designed for the job.

Lastly, there are attempts being made to repair worn-out blades. Epoxies are being tested to determine their viability for extending the lifespan of the blades. Simple surface repairs such as surface cracks, surface erosion, and delamination can be fixed with these resins.

Ultimately, the issue boils down to disincentivizing burying the blades. Companies do it because it is the cheapest option for them, and they do not have to worry about researching alternatives.

To accelerate the process of finding different disposal methods, the government could fund research to determine appropriate methods of recycling blades.

By further developing methods to be more environmentally friendly and efficient, companies could then rely on these options for good publicity and potentially even profit.

The government could also fine or ban burying blades or subsidize different disposal methods. Either of these would make companies stop digging holes since there would now be cheaper options.

I believe the best route is to develop epoxies and blade designs that last much longer to decrease the replacement rate, and then finding economically and environmentally sensible recycling methods.

It is dangerous to continue building wind turbines without having determined suitable options for deteriorated blades. Policy for these behemoths is short-sighted and is not sustainable. Land should not continue to be torn up for the sole purpose of laying these blades to rest.

If the government is going to continue encouraging this green energy, it needs to properly regulate the waste disposal. Losing countless acres of land and millions of tons of fiberglass to turbine blade landfills is incredibly wasteful.

The public needs to be aware of this tragic reality. So many people believe that once a turbine goes up, it is free, infinite, green energy, which is simply not the case. Many are not aware of the maintenance and replacement that accompanies these massive turbines.

The public is eager to hop on the green energy bandwagon without considering the full consequences of the energy source. The U.S. must slow down its turbine production and spend more time carefully planning the lifecycle of this infrastructure.