Upgrades for Iowa’s growing wind industry, which is already among the nation’s largest, are creating some unexpected challenges. MidAmerican’s retired blades, destined for the Butler County Landfill near David City, about 130 miles away, are among hundreds that will land in dumps across Iowa and the nation. Critics of wind energy say the blades’ march to a landfill weakens the industry’s claim it’s an environmentally friendly source of energy.
“This clean, green energy is not so clean and not so green,” says Julie Kuntz, who opposes a Worth County wind project. “It’s just more waste going in our landfills.”
Daniel Laird, a U.S. Department of Energy researcher, said that most of a turbine can be recycled, including “a lot of metal — steel and copper.”
He acknowledges, though, that disposing of the blades is a challenge. Wind energy generation, now topping 100 gigawatts nationally, will create 1 million tons of fiberglass and other composite waste, said Laird, director of the National Wind Technology Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.
“The scale of the issue is quite large,” said Laird, whose group is working to develop new blade materials that will enable reuse. “It’s quite a bit of material. And it’s a larger sustainability issue. We would like everything that’s manufactured to be reusable or recyclable.”
Disposing of turbine blades is an issue that will likely linger for years in Iowa. Large, investor-owned Iowa utilities are investing heavily in wind energy as well as replacing blades to extend the life of older turbines.
MidAmerican will have spent $11.6 billion on wind from 2004 through this year, and Alliant Energy is spending $2.4 billion to build wind farms in Iowa. Iowa had 5,073 turbines last year, seven times more than in 2004, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show.