Researchers estimate the U.S. will have more than 720,000 tons of blade material to dispose of over the next 20 years, a figure that doesn’t include newer, taller higher-capacity versions. There aren’t many options to recycle or trash turbine blades, and what options do exist are expensive, partly because the U.S. wind industry is so young. It’s a waste problem that runs counter to what the industry is held up to be: a perfect solution for environmentalists looking to combat climate change, an attractive investment for companies such as Budweiser and Hormel Foods, and a job creator across the Midwest and Great Plains.
At the end of a long gravel road on the southwest Nebraska prairie, the state’s first wind farm, Kimball Wind Project, is caught in the breeze. But the turbine scrap area looks more like a sci-fi drama set. Rob Van Vleet climbed atop a 127-foot-long turbine blade and walked the length like a plank. “These towers may be supporting as much as 150,000 pounds, 250 feet in the air,” Van Vleet said. “The stands are an inch and a half thick steel … so they’re very strong.”
Ninety percent of a turbine’s parts can be recycled or sold, according to Van Vleet, but the blades, made of a tough but pliable mix of resin and fiberglass — similar to what spaceship parts are made from — are a different story. “The blades are kind of a dud because they have no value,” he said.
Decommissioned blades are also notoriously difficult and expensive to transport. They can be anywhere from 100 to 300 feet long and need to be cut up onsite before getting trucked away on specialized equipment — which costs money — to the landfill.