Can Wind Turbines be Recycled? Finding a More Sustainable End of Life

Wind energy experienced the greatest growth among all renewable power technologies in 2022. New, massive wind farms play a crucial role in assisting countries to transition to green electricity. However, this rapid growth of wind energy could cause another problem.

Wind energy has a significant waste problem

Wind energy is generated by wind turbines. A wind turbine has an average lifespan of 20-25 years. So the first generation of wind turbines that were commissioned in the early to mid-nineties are now coming to the end of their life.

A wind turbine consists of more than 8,000 parts, 96% of which are recyclable. However, the remaining 4% cannot be recycled. Wind turbine blades are among those parts. As they cannot be recycled, many are added to landfills at the end of their lifespan.

Why is it hard to recycle wind turbine blades?

With blades spanning over half a football field in length, wind turbines are designed to withstand the toughest and harshest conditions while efficiently converting kinetic energy into electric energy.

The blades are made from fiberglass bound together with epoxy resin, for sturdiness. Recycling facilities are currently ill-equipped to break down these composite materials. Their size and materials makes wind turbines extremely difficult and expensive to recycle. 

As there are no regulations governing the recycling of wind turbine blades, the easiest and cheapest way to get rid of them is to put them in landfills.

How can we recycle wind turbine blades?

To make wind energy a truly sustainable solution, various companies and scientists are working on solutions to recycle the blades:

  • Danish company Vestas, along with Aarhus University, the Danish Technological Institute, and U.S.-based epoxy company Olin, uses a liquid chemical solution to break down the blade into epoxy fragments and fibers. The epoxy resin is then processed into virgin-grade epoxy.
  • French company Veolia is turning old blades into an ingredient for cement production. It shreds, sorts, and blends blade materials and sends them to cement kilns. Using this blend Veolia claims to reduce the pollution caused by cement manufacturing by 27%.
  • Along with the U.S. Department of Energy Tennessee-based Carbon Rivers is using pyrolysis technology, a form of chemical recycling to to recover clean, mechanically intact glass fiber from decommissioned wind turbine blades. The separated recycled glass fiber is then reused in the manufacturing of new products.
  • Researchers at the University of Michigan made a new resin for blades by combining glass fibers with a plant-derived polymer and a synthetic one. It can be recycled into ingredients for products, including new turbine blades, laptop covers, power tools, and even gummy bear candies.
  • Several creative solutions have been attempted to upcycle wind turbines. Denmark has repurposed them into bike stands, while Global Fiberglass Solutions in the U.S. is producing warehouse pallets, flooring material, or parking bollards.

As wind energy continues to play a critical role in the fight against climate change, it is essential to improve and commercialize these turbine recycling solutions.

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