By Brandon Fitchett
For nearly four decades, wind power has been increasingly adopted in the U.S., but it has accelerated rapidly in the last decade. Cumulative wind power generating capacity surpassed 100 gigawatts in 2019, representing almost 8 percent of total electricity generated. Moreover, wind now comprises about 30 percent of new capacity being added nationwide. The U.S. Department of Energy projects that, in an aggressive scenario, total wind generating capacity could reach more than 400 gigawatts by 2050.
Given that the service life of wind turbines ranges from 20 to 25 years, some of the earliest megawatt-scale wind turbines are just now being decommissioned. A wind turbine assembly includes the rotor (typically with three blades), nacelle (turbine generator and housing), tower, and foundation (Figure 1). A significant part of a turbine includes recyclable materials: the foundation is concrete; the tower is steel; and the nacelle components are primarily steel and copper. That is not the case for the blades, which are comprised primarily of glass fiber or carbon fiber reinforced polymer composites (GFRP or CFRP) - along with foam, balsa, metal, adhesive, paint, and other materials. At up to 100m in length, these blades are difficult and expensive to recycle due to both their size and the nature of the tough glass and carbon fibers. Since these materials also are non-hazardous, most decommissioned blades are currently sent to landfills for disposal.
The volume of decommissioned blades is currently low, less than 25 thousand tons per year. However, due to expanding use of wind power and increasing numbers of turbines being decommissioned or re-powered each year, managing wind turbine blade end-of-life issues is a growing long-term concern. The annual amount of blade waste is expected to increase 10 times by 2050, ranging between 200,000 tons per year to almost 400,000 tons per year, depending on turbine service life and total capacity deployed.
Blade management technologies
There are many technologies being developed for managing wind turbine blades nearing the end of their useful life. These include:
Pyrolysis, cement kilns, and grinding/re-use all require significant size reduction of the blade, from tens of meters down to centimeters. Other re-use concepts in development take large sections of decommissioned blades and repurpose them for construction purposes, such as affordable housing, playgrounds, utility poles, or pedestrian bridges. Such concepts are attractive because they offer high materials recovery, low costs, and minimal environmental impacts. Structural considerations are being researched, but the market for these materials is not well defined. There are many other technologies currently in early development to meet the growing need for composites recycling.
Going beyond the technology options, the sustainability and economics of wind turbine blade recycling rests heavily on logistical considerations. Availability of a major transportation network is a critical cost variable. Also important is proximity to intermediate processing facilities for size reduction and aggregation of composites from different sources, as well as proximity to central recycling facilities. Although wind farms are concentrated largely in Texas and north through the Midwest, that distribution may change as more states adopt wind power, and wind farms move off-shore. Because the volume of decommissioned wind turbine blades is currently low and dispersed across the U.S., it is likely that the blades will have to be combined with other sources of composites (e.g., boat hulls) to achieve a sustainable recycling paradigm.
Where do we go from here?
Given the explosive growth in renewable energy, it is important that we get out in front of the end-of-life issues. More research is needed for:
As the power generation industry increasingly relies on renewable energy sources, the ultimate goal is to develop sustainable management practices that minimize environmental impacts once a blade has made its final rotation.
Brandon Fitchett is Senior Project Manager at Electric Power Research Institute. The information above is based on the EPRI report “Wind Turbine Blade Recycling: Preliminary Assessment” (Report 3002017711), which is available at no cost on the EPRI website. The report was authored for EPRI by the American Composite Manufacturers Association.