For environmentalists and many governments wind energy looks more like the future of clean energy and the silver lining of renewable energies. However, once a wind farm has closed down a serious waste problem rises threatening its green credentials.
Wind turbines are sturdy enough and made to last the longest, but not forever. Some have a lifespan of 20 years and thereafter have to be discarded. Most of them are recycled or end up with a new lease of life in another wind farm. However, disposal still remains a major issue. In the United States alone, over 720,000 tonnes of wind turbine blades and related material will need to be disposed within two decades even without counting the new generation of higher capacity, longer and newer blade versions.
Few recycling options
When it comes to recycling, very few options exist for blades. The choices in place are usually expensive, considering the youthfulness of the wind energy industry in most places, including the United States. While wind energy is a highly rated solution by environmentalists and clean energy advocates that could have a huge impact on the war against climate change, the problem of waste could dampen this hope.
In fact, wind energy is already attracting huge investment from giant companies such as Hormel Foods and Budweiser while creating lots of jobs along the Great Plains and Midwestern areas of the United States.
Nebraska prairie in the mix
One of the wind projects to find itself with a major wind turbine blade waste problem is the Kimball Wind Project along the prairie southwest of Nebraska. The wind energy project now has a lot of waste to grapple with, which include turbine blades as long as 127 feet. After its life, a turbine’s parts can be sold or recycled up to 90 per cent, which are fibreglass and resin blend made, materials that are also used to create spaceship parts. However, once the blades are done, their value decreases and become almost useless.
Once decommissioned, blades aren’t the easiest to transport and largely difficult to move around. Ranging between 100 feet and 300 feet in length, transporting them requires that they are slashed to smaller sizes for easier conveyance to landfills by trucks using specialised expensive machinery.
Since most wind projects are based in small municipalities having hundreds of very long turbine blades in a landfill mean local trash points will fill up fast majorly with wind farm wastes. Most of the disposal points in municipal areas in the US, such as Casper in Wyoming have crushing equipment that cannot crush blades effectively and has to be cut up into smaller manageable pieces to avoid incurring huge expenses for top of the range crushing systems.
Since the European Union waste management guidelines and laws are already clear on such waste disposal, most companies in Europe simply sell their old wind farm components such as blades to countries in Latin America and Asia.
New disposal methods
Even with waste problems it doesn’t mean new disposal methods aren’t being developed. Technology officers and researchers at Global Fibreglass Solutions have come up with a system for blades recycling where resin is removed from them. The resin is then ground to create pellets the size of chocolate for use in piping, pallets or decking. A start up for this exercise has already been launched in Texas with another in Des Moines in Iowa about to be leased.
Decommissioning of wind farms isn’t expected to stop and disposing the different parts will continue being a major headache for lots of stakeholders. To keep the clean energy credentials of wind and balance it with landfill footprint decrease, better and efficient ways of disposal must be developed and adopted.