Wind Turbine Blades Can Be Recycled

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Wind power gets a lot of crap from people. Most of it is lies. Trump said they cause cancer, Greg Abbott says that they caused the recent problems in Texas, and there are garbage articles and videos all over the internet spreading lies about turbines. One of the most common ones is that they can’t produce more energy than it takes to make them, but at the same time when they quit working, they get the blame for everything. They’re Schrödinger’s turbines, both useless and indispensable at the same time.

As MSNBC’s hosts pointed out, there are a broad variety of reasons to share these lies. First off, the fossil fuel industry funds false studies and people willing to help spread the lies so that they will face less competition. When these lies find fertile ground in people’s minds, they will oppose the construction of new wind turbines in new places. It doesn’t matter that it’s all junk science or just straight-out lies when there are enough people who will believe it and won’t put in the time to learn the truth.

Amid all of the lies, there’s one truth that the haters have latched on to: recyclability. The tower can be melted down and the metals reused, and the materials in the turbine housing itself, including the generator, can all be reused. However, the blades are another matter. The composites from which many of them are built are tough to recycle and often get thrown away.

While true, this fact is often taken out of context. The whole truth of the matter is that the wind industry has one of the lowest composite waste rates. 85-95% of the turbine can be recycled, with the composite blades being a small part of the overall materials. The construction, electronic, transport, and shipping industries all produce more composites waste than the wind industry.

Despite how little of a negative impact the blades are, the wind industry is taking the problem on regardless. A new multi-company project, called DecomBlades, aims to find ways to recycle the parts of composite blades that can’t be readily recycled today.

“The wind power industry is committed to finding a sustainable way to dispose of these decommissioned wind turbine blades with respect to the environment, health and safety of workers, energy consumption and cost, and we simply don’t yet have solutions that meet all those criteria.” John Korsgaard, LM Wind Power Senior Director of Engineering Excellence and Chair of the DecomBlades Steering Committee said. “To create viable, sustainable, cost-efficient solutions for recycling wind turbine blades, it is essential that composite materials from blades can be incorporated into similar resource streams and processed in the same facilities.”

The consortium is a joint project between ten wind power companies. The goal is to change the industry by figuring out three different ways to make use of the blade material. First, they’re looking at finding ways to shred the blades up and leave fibers that can be reused for new composite objects. Second, they’re looking for ways to use the composites to reinforce concrete. Finally, they’re going to study ways to separate the composites again, using pyrolysis. Each of these methods would be a great way to reuse the composites, but having multiple options would help cover the waste from the whole industry.

“In pursuit of a carbon neutral society, recycling end-of-life materials and switching to alternative materials in cement production can play a significant role in reducing CO2 emissions. The DecomBlades project focuses on recycling technologies which can be upscaled to recycle the expected volumes of decommissioned wind turbine blades in the coming decades,” said Mr. Korsgaard. “The investment and commitment from this cross-sector consortium represents the next step to further the growth of these recycling industries.”

The overall goal is to help turn the whole wind industry into a circular industry, or one that doesn’t take raw materials. By only using recycled materials at some point in the future, they can lower the impact significantly. Also, the consortium hopes to bring more business and opportunity to Denmark by making it a global recycling hub for turbine blades.

Perhaps more importantly, once they get this figured out, it will be good proof that turbines can in fact be recycled. People won’t be able to run around misusing one of the few negative facts about wind turbines without there being a real fact to counteract the lies that they are telling. It won’t solve the whole problem, but it will help at least some.

But Why Appease The Kooks?

Before you write off the whole group of people who believe this stuff, I’d like to share my story (and I promise to keep it short). I used to be one of the kooks, guys. Sorry.

I grew up in a conservative household and once believed all of the lies about environmental issues. Climate change wasn’t real. Renewables couldn’t help, and only drive up electricity costs. Electric cars are stupid little golf carts that make “the libs” feel good, but aren’t any cleaner. Pretty much the whole package. I had swallowed it all hook, line, and sinker because it was what I was raised with and it’s what my family was raised with.

While LGBT issues were one of the big wedges that drove me away from conservatism, I also started to get some experience experimenting with solar for family preparedness projects. I built my own solar power system for emergencies using some panels, a deep-cycle RV battery, and an inverter. I also had some radio gear that ran directly off the battery.

Fortunately, the world didn’t end and I didn’t end up needing the solar power to survive the apocalypse, but I did learn a lot building it. When you actually go out onto the internet looking for facts, you can find them, and they can’t be hidden away once you have it in front of your face. After doing the math on different home generation options, I realized that they were, in fact, a viable option for giving us all power.

Once I saw one lie being told, some trust was lost, and I started Googling for a broader variety of sources to see if they were lying about other things (and they were).

It makes a small difference, having one person drift away from the lies, but do this enough times, and renewables can become a multi-partisan thing that everyone can get behind.

Featured image: Wind turbines and solar power in New Mexico. Image by Jennifer Sensiba

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1868 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba