You Can Recycle a Plastic Bottle. What About Wind-Turbine Blades?
Thursday, April 21, 2022
This Earth Day, Americans will be reminded of the need to take steps to protect the environment.
Wind turbines are a leading clean-energy source, and the industry is looking inward to eliminate its own waste. Drive around states like Iowa, and you're bound to see rows of wind turbines hard at work. But when those spinning blades are taken out of commission, they're often sent to landfills.
To minimize waste, technology is surfacing to give these items new life, at a wind farm or in other products.
Taylor Curtis, regulatory and policy analyst for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (N-REL), said it comes at a crucial time for the industry.
"Over the last few decades, we've put [out] a tremendous amount of wind systems connected to the grid," Curtis pointed out. "But they are legacy systems and there is a projection of having a pretty large amount of materials reaching ends of life by 2050."
A 2017 study estimated there will be 43 million metric tons of global blade waste more than two decades from now.
N-REL recently demonstrated the feasibility of technology for blade recycling, with a thermoplastic resin which can be melted down and reused.
Curtis acknowledged a key challenge is motiving others in the industry to forgo blade disposal, which right now is viewed as the easier approach.
Grady Howell, project manager for Vestas Blades, which has been involved with bringing similar technology to the market, said the movement is not just about getting material from old blades back into circulation. He emphasized it can be put to use elsewhere, like cement.
"What you do is you take this blade, you break it down, you put it into the cement coat-processing process," Howell outlined. "They get the fuel out of it to fire their kiln, and they also do get some of that glass that ends up then in the concrete. And you actually kind-of end up with a fiber-reinforced cement."
Companies like Vestas admitted those producing the technology still have a lot of work to do to build up capacity and make it more commercially viable.
Curtis added policymakers can help by supporting more research and accessibility for the products.
"Right now is a great opportunity to get ahead of what could be a potential waste concern," Curtis concluded.
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