Why can’t wind turbine blades be recycled?
No doubt, wind power is among the oldest energy sources, and wind turbines help harness that energy.
While wind turbines offer many benefits, there are some downsides as well.
Finding the right location for wind turbines is a common issue, but it is also problematic to handle worn-out blades.
But, the question is why on earth wind turbine blades can’t be recycled?
It is because of the fiberglass composite used to make those blades, which is extremely resistant to degradation and recycling.
Exploring the World of Wind Turbines
The process of harnessing wind energy involves converting mechanical energy into electricity with the use of wind turbines.
The wind is a clean, renewable energy source because it does not require the burning of fossil fuels or add to air pollution levels.
And perhaps that is the reason why the United States’ main renewable energy source is still wind.
The Important Considerations of Using Wind Turbines
Now, there surely are benefits of relying on wind turbines, but there are various considerations as well.
For instance, finding the best site to install these turbines is hard. The best places to install wind turbines are typically in undeveloped areas.
There are technical hurdles that must be addressed before power generated by wind farms can be sent to metropolitan areas.
Similarly, turbines can be rather unsightly and make a lot of noise.
And above all, there is a huge issue concerning the recyclability of wind turbine blades.
Fact: The first turbine invented had over 140 blades, but only generated about 12 watts which aren’t enough to power the modern light bulb.
The Issue of Recycling Wind Turbine Blades
It turns out there’s a problem with wind power. It is something to do with the rather large parts that can’t be recycled.
They’re not rotting away fast enough in landfills, causing serious concerns.
For an industry set on delivering sustainable, green energy, that the huge turbine blades are un-recyclable is embarrassing.
What’s more, the need for urgent action has become obvious. Spent wind turbine blades are piling up in landfills all over the planet.
On June 6, 2022, WindEurope, ‘the voice for wind energy in Europe’, called for a worldwide ban on depositing used turbine blades in landfills by 2025.
It also handed the wind power industry a challenge, to be using 100% recyclable turbine blades, by 2025.
Materials of Wind Turbine Blades
Mostly wind turbine blades are made of a fiberglass composite.
For extra strength, some are reinforced with aramid which we know as Kevlar, or carbon fiber.
Whether natural composites, such as wood-epoxy or wood-fiber-epoxy will work is being looked into.
Fact: Over the decades, designs have made use of fewer blades, but they were efficient enough for use on a small scale, such as to provide one house with electricity.
Why Can’t Wind Turbine Blades be Recycled?
Because they were made to last for twenty years or more in all kinds of weather, the blades are tough to recycle. You cannot just rip them in two.
They are massive, as some of them are 95 m in length or more.
But, they are also usually located in inconveniently far-flung areas, which makes transporting them both difficult and expensive.
It is true that though each manufacturer uses a slightly different formula, composite materials account for generally 80-90% of the bulk of the blade.
Reinforcing fibers, primarily fiberglass with some carbon fiber, accounts for 60% to 70% of the mass.
The long, rigid fibers are bonded in a rigid, relatively lightweight solid matrix by a polymeric resin.
The problem is the composite itself. It’s a thermoset composite made with glass fiber and a polymer for added strength. The mix sets hard under heat and pressure.
Fact: Recycling even the smallest amount of material that has been permanently bonded like in wind turbine blades is a challenge and tricky to recycle.
Finding Hope to Recycle Wind Turbine Blades
In 2020, about 6% of the world’s electricity came from wind turbines.
Analysts in the field project an annual increase of over 6% for the next decade.
The problem is that the quantity of decommissioned, older, less efficient turbine blades is rising in tandem with the expansion of the wind energy sector.
About 8,000 US blades were removed that year. Given their limited usefulness, most blades ended up in landfills.
Nevertheless, many businesses are investigating methods of recycling these massive blades.
They are doing it by:
- Shredding and utilizing the plastic resin and fiberglass
And most of them are using it to create cement and hard industrial polymers, among other things.
Fact: Three-bladed turbines are a lot more cost effective, efficient, and stable as fewer blades provide better balance even in high winds and heights.
The Importance of Turbine Blades
So, you might be wondering why the wind power industry is still using these blades.
It is because at present there aren’t viable alternatives for wind farming on a large scale.
Turbines themselves are an ancient technology, with Archimedes’ screw, wind and water mills, are examples.
Wind turbines themselves have been around since 1888 but hit popularity in the 1930s.
Over the years, the materials used to build the blades may have changed, but the physics behind them has not.
Wind Turbine Blades in Action
A rotating blade is still the most efficient way to generate a kind of energy called rotational kinetic energy.
This is the energy an object has while it is actually rotating.
In modern times, turbines are used in so many things from jet and car engines to vacuum cleaners.
We tend not to notice them mostly, although a field full of 3 bladed wind turbines is hard to miss.
What are the Advantages of Using Long Blades in a Windmill?
One big reason why it is hard to recycle wind turbine blades is that they are massive.
Yes, long blades may have disadvantages, being difficult to transport and install, as well as recycle.
They are designed with a service life expectancy of around 20 years but in practice, most need replacing after just ten. But, it cannot be avoided.
Going with Longer Wind Turbine Blades
Although having more blades offers no advantage regarding energy yield, having longer blades on turbines does.
The blades, that are just a bit larger than a football pitch, have a wide sweep and rotational diameter that allows each blade to reach more of the wind.
They work better high up, where the blades can reach faster, more reliable wind currents than are available lower down.
Long blades can reach enough of the wind to be efficient, even when at ground level it feels like a windless day.
What is Done to Wind Turbine Blades?
To the majority, nothing.
Other than that they get torn down at the cost of $200,000 a time and driven at great expense to a suitable landfill and just sit there.
It’s thought they don’t leach out anything dangerous; the issue is more about how much space they take up.
There are frightening predictions as to the numbers. Some 1.5 metric tonnes by 2040, just in the US.
Globally by 2050 43 million tonnes. Or to put it another way, just a handful of years over one unit’s expected service life, or two units, if we’re being realistic.
Time to Handle the Issue
The elephant in the room at the wind power party is not as invisible as it once was. But there is hope.
The problem of what to do with decommissioned wind turbines has spurred many into action and if we can’t recycle, can we at least re-purpose?
There are companies already around shredding blades to make a form of cement.
Others are looking into how they can break down that tough bond to separate the composite back into its components.
They hope to re-use epoxy as a strengthener in the industry.
Other materials, including wood composites, are also being developed, tested and considered.
There is progress, but even though the industry is rising to the challenge of what to do with spent wind turbine blades, time is against it.
Why can’t wind turbine blades be recycled? The biggest problem is that these blades are designed to withstand harsh weather conditions.
Therefore, the material used in manufacturing is the reason why it is hard to recycle them.
Handling massive blades is yet another issue. But, you just cannot achieve the same results with smaller blades.
Many companies have come forward with ideas to use these blades in other ways, but there is still a long way to go.