While most of a turbine can be recycled or find a second life on another wind farm, researchers estimate the U.S. will have more than 720,000 tons of blade material to dispose of over the next 20 years, a figure that doesn't include newer, taller higher-capacity versions.
There aren't many options to recycle or trash turbine blades, and what options do exist are expensive, partly because the U.S. wind industry is so young. It's a waste problem that runs counter to what the industry is held up to be: a perfect solution for environmentalists looking to combat climate change, an attractive investment for companies such as Budweiser and Hormel Foods, and a job creator across the Midwest and Great Plains.
At the end of a long gravel road on the southwest Nebraska prairie, the state's first wind farm, Kimball Wind Project, is caught in the breeze. But the turbine scrap area looks more like a sci-fi drama set. Rob Van Vleet climbed atop a 127-foot-long turbine blade and walked the length like a plank.
"These towers may be supporting as much as 150,000 pounds, 250 feet in the air," Van Vleet said. "The stands are an inch and a half thick steel ... so they're very strong."
Ninety percent of a turbine's parts can be recycled or sold, according to Van Vleet, but the blades, made of a tough but pliable mix of resin and fiberglass — similar to what spaceship parts are made from — are a different story.
"The blades are kind of a dud because they have no value," he said.
Decommissioned blades are also notoriously difficult and expensive to transport. They can be anywhere from 100 to 300 feet long and need to be cut up onsite before getting trucked away on specialized equipment — which costs money — to the landfill.
Once there, Van Vleet said, the size of the blades can put landfills in a tough spot.
"If you're a small utility or municipality and all of a sudden hundreds of blades start coming to your landfill, you don't want to use up your capacity for your local municipal trash for wind turbine blades," he said, adding that permits for more landfill space add another layer of expenses.
Cindy Langstrom manages the turbine blade disposal project for the municipal landfill in Casper, Wyo. Though her landfill is one of the only ones in the state — not to mention the entire U.S. — with enough space to take wind farm waste, she said the blades' durability initially posed a financial hurdle.
"Our crushing equipment is not big enough to crush them," she said.
Langstrom's team eventually settled on cutting up the blades into three pieces and stuffing the two smaller sections into the third, which was cheaper than renting stronger crushing machines that are usually made for mining.
Karl Englund, a researcher and chief technology officer of Global Fiberglass Solutions, said recycling turbine blades is more regulated in countries that have had wind power for decades. The European Union has waste management rules, so some European companies sell older parts to customers in Asia and Latin America.
"[In Europe], land is at a premium, and you're not allowed to throw things away," he said. "So you have to do it."
Englund believes he's found a way to recycle blades by grinding them up to make chocolate chip-sized pellets. They can be used for decking materials, pallets and piping. His startup opened its first processing facility in central Texas this year, and it's leasing a second space near Des Moines, Iowa.
Van Vleet said finding better ways to decommission wind farms will be an uphill battle, but when it comes to confronting the looming waste issue, "it's something that's happening, whether we like it or not, so we just as well get in on it."
He's exploring his own way to decrease the industry's landfill footprint, in hopes that blade recycling can blossom into a local industry. And for rural areas looking for an economic boost, Van Vleet thinks his risk of recycling just might pay off.
"Out on the prairie, there's not very much scrap," he said. "The idea is to develop the next technology, otherwise, I wouldn't be doing this.
"We lose money on every blade we haul."
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
For environmentalists, it's easy to support wind energy. It's renewable, but what happens once it's time to replace a wind turbine? As NET's Christina Stella reports, it's a complicated prospect - one that's not easy on the environment.
CHRISTINA STELLA, BYLINE: Across the country, dozens of the first wind farms are nearing their 20-year expiration date. That means hundreds of wind turbines will be taken down and discarded. Doing that is a big job. Each turbine is over 150,000 pounds of steel and carbon. Most parts of a wind turbine are recyclable, but their propeller-like blades have stumped wind companies for years. Cindy Langstrom, a landfill manager in Wyoming, says part of the problem is how turbine blades are built.
CINDY LANGSTROM: They're made out of an incredibly strong fiberglass. The company brought one in as a demo for us to try to crush, and actually, our crushing equipment is not big enough to crush them.
STELLA: A mix of resin and fiberglass makes blades strong but pliable like an airplane wing, so finding a way to process the blades is a challenge.
LANGSTROM: We've talked about cutting them into three different pieces because it made the rates way too high to rent the big crushing machines you see in mines. We just don't have that kind of equipment. It's too expensive to rent.
STELLA: On the Nebraska prairie in the town of Kimball, Rob Van Vleet is standing in the shadow of a wind turbine that's taller than the Statue of Liberty. His job is to scrap seven turbines left over from one of Nebraska's first wind farms - over 200,000 pounds of material.
ROB VAN VLEET: Taking things apart is difficult. It took a lot of energy to put it together. It's going to take a lot to take it apart. This job in particular - there are a hundred semi loads of material that need to be removed. That's very expensive to move.
STELLA: Smaller, older blades can be the length of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and many newer models are three times as long. Van Vleet says dealing with their size is a problem because some scrappers have to rent or build specialized trucks just to take the blades to a landfill. And to accommodate the volume of waste, landfills sometimes need to build extra space. That drives prices even higher for scrappers and puts landfills in a tight spot.
VAN VLEET: So if you're a small utility or municipality, let's say, and all of a sudden, hundreds of blades start to come to your landfill, you don't want to use up your capacity for your local municipal trash for wind turbine blades.
STELLA: Karl Englund is a research professor at Washington State University and an entrepreneur. He says U.S. wind companies looking to recycle blades don't have options right now because the industry here is still young.
KARL ENGLUND: In the States, we haven't had a lot of decommissioned wind farms. In places like Europe, where it's denser and land is at a premium, you're not allowed to throw things away, so you have to do it.
STELLA: Englund says he's developed a way to repurpose blades by grinding them up to make chocolate chip-size poly pellets that can be used to make things like plastic wood, pallets and piping. He works for a startup, Global Fiberglass Solutions, that opened its first processing facility in central Texas this year and has leased a second near Des Moines. Back in Nebraska, Rob Van Vleet also sees opportunity in trying to figure out how to recycle the enormous blades.
VAN VLEET: Out on the prairie, there's not very much scrap. The idea is to develop the next technology. Otherwise, I wouldn't be doing this. We lose money on every blade we haul.
STELLA: Last winter, he decided to buy them from the company he's scrapping them for so he could experiment on the leftover materials. As he tightens a blade to the bed of his truck, he's one step closer to finding a way to profit from wind power.
For NPR News, I'm Christina Stella.
CHANG: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focused on agriculture and rural issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.