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U.S. and European Views Differ over Disposing Wind Blades in Landfills

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

When ramping up the U.S. offshore wind industry, it becomes crucial to solve the question of how to decommission a wind farm ahead of time to avoid errors of the past made in the U.S. onshore industry and in Europe. While 85-90 percent of a current wind mill structure can be recycled and sustainably decommissioned, turbine blades made of glass or carbon fibers and other composite materials have not been treated as recyclable and instead sent to landfills. This can be viewed as hypocritical of the renewable industry that claims to solve a climate crisis but causes bigger problems in the process.

“Wind energy is a green technology. Sustainability is part of our DNA. That’s why we are constantly striving to further reduce our impact on the environment,” states WindEurope, the European wind association. WindEurope called for a European-wide ban on disposing turbine blades in landfills by 2025 and instead wants a mandate to re-use, recycle, or recover 100% of decommissioned blades. “Austria, Finland, Germany, and the Netherlands already have a landfill ban in place. But we call upon the European Commission to propose a harmonized European approach,” states Giles Dickson, CEO of WindEurope in a press release. A ban will also help accelerate the development of sustainable recycling technologies.

Decommissioning of turbine blades has already started in the U.S. onshore wind sector for wind farms built 20 years ago. Currently, thousands of blades are heading to landfills as the technology to recycle fiberglass composites barely exists. And even then, the market for crushed fibers is very underdeveloped and the re-use of it limited. Yet the severity of this issue has been viewed very differently by the leading industry associations on either side of the Atlantic.

WindEurope in June 2021 called for a ban on sending blades into landfills by 2025. By that year, a large number of blades will reach the end of their operational life. Currently, 25,000 tons of blades annually need to find a new purpose, and the amount could more than double by 2030. The ban proactively calls for a circular economy for wind turbine blades, laid out in a 13-page position paper by WindEurope: “The wind industry will develop an industry roadmap further detailing the steps required to accelerate wind turbine blade circularity. This roadmap will focus on four work streams: 1) implementing the landfill ban, 2) achieving full recyclability of existing blades in the future, 3) making future blades fully circular and 4) engaging with other sectors.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) published a 2-page position paper titled “Wind Turbine End-Of-Life Strategies” in June 2020. According to the Electric Power Research Institute there “will be 2.1 - 4 million tons of cumulative blades put in landfills between 2020 and 2050.”

To solve this issue, the AWEA paper emphasizes four strategies: 1) lifetime extension through blade repair and monitoring, 2) repurposing for use in pedestrian bridges, playground equipment, public benches, signage, power line structures, and highway sound barriers, roofing and other application, also known as down-cycling, and 3) accelerating research of recycling technologies in the known national research labs. As the final solution, AWEA suggests the disposal into landfills since the blades “are made from safe, inert materials that do not leach hazardous waste.” The paper also claims that the use of regional landfills, like a large facility in Casper, WY, will “result in additional funding for local communities.”

To put the two approaches into perspective: WindEurope, the E.U. association calls for a ban after being concerned over 25,000-50,000 tons of blades being disposed of annually in the European countries. AWEA, the U.S. association still proposes disposal in landfills with an average of 70,000-134,000 tons of blades being expected annually.

On the European market, members of the offshore wind industry are teaming up to tackle the turbine waste. Ten leading offshore wind project partners* formed the consortium DecomBlades which was awarded funding by the Innovation Fund Denmark in January 2021 to support a 3-year research project on sustainable methods for decommissioning turbines. In the press release the consortium explains, “the project focuses on three specific processes: shredding of wind turbine blades such that the material can be reused in different products and processes; use of shredded blade material in cement production; and, finally, a method to separate the composite material under high temperatures, also known as pyrolysis.”

In the U.S., research into turbine recycling is moving forward as well. Research institutes like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACME), the American Composites Manufacturers Association (ACMA), and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) are working on advanced recycling technologies.

Besides finding solutions to recycle existing blades, NREL has been working with the industry to replace difficult-to-recycle fiber glass with blade components that can be reused, like thermoplastic resins. After four years the researchers celebrated a huge break through. "Thermoplastics have the potential to revolutionize the wind energy industry, introducing a new era of next-generation materials, fabrication, testing, and welding techniques. Arkema's Elium resin is a two-part liquid reactive thermoplastic that blends together the advantages of thermoset and thermoplastic resins," states the lab. The hope is that the resin that can be reshaped under heat and circulated as a recommissioned blade rather than being shredded and down-cycled.

Elium is also being tested by ZEBRA (Zero wastE Blade ReseArch), a strategic industry consortium to develop the first 100% recyclable turbine blade in Europe. ZEBRA was formed in 2020 and is lead by the French research center IRT Jules Verne. The project will last for a period of four years with a budget of €18.5 million ($21.8 million), according to the press release. ZEBRA combines key players** of the full value chain from the development of materials, to blade manufacturing, to wind turbine operation and decommissioning, and finally recycling of the decommissioned blade material.

Update (9/17/2021): Siemens Gamesa announced in the beginning of September 2021 the launch of the first recyclable wind blade, the RecycableBlade. Six blades have been manufactured in Siemens Gamesa’s Danish blade factory in Aalborg and will be deployed on the German RWE offshore windfarm Kaskasi that is projected to produce energy in 2022. Other developers, like EDF Renewables and the wpd group have also announced to use the new RecycableBlades in future projects.

What makes the blades recyclable is a new resin type that allows to “efficiently separate the resin from the other components at end of the blade’s working life. This mild process protects the properties of the materials in the blade, in contrast to other existing ways of recycling conventional wind turbine blades. The materials can then be reused in new applications after separation,” according to the Siemens press release.

Well over 1,000 blades have been buried in the Casper landfill in Wyoming since 2019, accounting for 600,000 dollars in revenue for the facility. Photographs of the Casper landfill received worldwide attention. The company’s Facebook site promotes itself with pictures of hundreds of blades piled up on the ground, even being visible on satellite images on google. The blades are cut up and buried in unlined, so-called specialty sections and are assumed to stay in the ground for hundreds of years. The Casper facility manager, Cynthia Langston, welcomes the blades according to the local news, “It’s great business for us.”

Other county officials see the landfill solution with a more critical eye, calling for the wind industry to take care of decommissioned parts instead of just disposing them. But an attempt to ban the disposal of blades in landfills in the near future (HBO 217) died in the Wyoming senate.

The original bill read: “No person shall place a wind turbine blade, in whole or in part, in mixed municipal solid waste, a solid waste management facility, commercial solid waste management facility or a commercial waste incineration or disposal facility in Wyoming.” The law would have been effective July 2024, similar to the European timeline.

Still, some see the wind blade disposal as a business opportunity. In the spring of 2020, Wyoming passed and signed law HB 129 that allows to use “decommissioned wind turbine blades and towers to backfill surface coal mining sites as part of an approved reclamation plan.” This disposal option was welcomed by the mining industry, which is responsible to restore the land once they close down a mine. The idea was viewed skeptically by land conservationists who were concerned over the use of mines as general disposal sites due to hazardous affects on ground water and land stability. The disposal and burying of the turbine blades in former mines turns the previously costly process of mine renaturalization into a lucrative business for mine owners.

In the past, Wyoming has been known as the coal state, with coal as a natural resource and cheap electricity from coal power plants. Yet, due to its natural terrain, Wyoming is one of the states with the highest potential for wind energy in the U.S. Parallel to the declining demand for coal, the state turned more towards renewable energy in 2020 when its onshore wind power capacity nearly doubled reaching 1,800 MW capacity. For the first time, the state scored among the top 3 wind energy-developing states in the U.S. for installations that came online that year, according to Energy Information Administration (EIA). The share of renewable electricity in the Wyoming energy portfolio covers now 15 percent of Wyoming’s electricity needs, with wind as the strongest application .

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AWEA position paper (6/2020):

WindEurope position paper (11/2020):

How to build a circular economy for wind turbine blades through policy and partnerships

Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews:

Integration of sustainability, stakeholder and process approaches for sustainable offshore wind farm decommissioning (available since 6/2021, authored by City University of Applied Sciences Bremen and other German research institute)

*DecomBlades Consortium

Members are: 1. Ørsted (wind developer), 2. LM Wind Power (blade manufacturer), 3. Vestas Wind Systems A/S (turbine manufacturer), 4. Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy (turbine manufacturer), 5. FLSmidth (mining and cement industry), 6. MAKEEN Power (power plant operator), 7. HJHansen Recycling (recycling industry), 8. Energy Cluster Denmark (ECD) (Danish energy association), 9. University of Southern Denmark (SDU) and 10. Technical University of Denmark (DTU)

**ZEBRA Consortium

Members are: 1. Arkema (developed the the thermoplastic resin Elium®), 2. Canoe (developed dissolution method for fibers), 3. Engie (wind farm operator), 4. LM Wind Power (blade desiger and manufacturer), 5. Owens Corning (fiber glass manufacturer) and 6. Suez (eco-design and recycling techniques)

Siemens Gamesa - RecycableBlades:

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