In the small community of Louisiana, Missouri, it’s not uncommon to see what looks like massive white wings traveling down the road, strapped to flatbed tractor-trailers.
Once a bustling commercial port, the historic Mississippi River town 90 miles north of St. Louis has become a hub for an unusual commodity: used wind turbine blades. Shipments from nearly every corner of the U.S. arrive daily at the Veolia North America recycling plant, the last stop for turbine blades at the end of their lifespan.
As she stood in the plant’s gravel parking lot on Monday, Rose Collard pointed to two sections of a 150-foot turbine blade from Massena, Iowa, weighing a combined 20,000 pounds. “This is one of the biggest blades that we get,” said Collard, an environmental health and safety specialist at the recycling facility.
The U.S. wind energy industry has grown at a record pace in recent years, with dozens of new projects popping up across the country. Missouri, Illinois and Iowa accounted for a substantial share of that growth in 2020, ranking among the states with the highest new wind power capacity. But this thriving industry is now facing a challenge: what to do with old wind turbine blades when it’s time to replace them.
Though most turbine blades are designed to last at least 20 years, some are discarded much sooner, wind technology engineer Derek Berry said.
“Some are catastrophically damaged by things like a lightning strike,” said Berry, who is based at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. “Or you might have a large wind farm that was built 10 or 15 years ago and a company wants to take down the older, shorter blades and put up longer blades that produce more energy.”
Researchers estimate 43 million tons of wind turbine blades will be discarded worldwide by 2050, weighing as much as about 1,000 individual St. Louis Arches.
Wind power is a more sustainable and economical alternative to fossil fuels. Once a wind turbine is taken down, about 85% of it can be recycled or reused, including copper wire, steel and electronics.
But turbine blades can be difficult to recycle. Unlike an aluminum can or glass bottle, the blades are often constructed of fiberglass, steel, wood and resin — components that are tough to sort during processing. Their mammoth size also can present a logistical challenge, said Robert Cappadona, president and CEO of Veolia’s Environmental Solutions and Services Group.
“Many of these wind farms are in remote locations,” Cappadona said. “If you’ve got a 291-foot-long blade and you need to move it 1,000 miles, what’s the best way to move it?”
Two years ago, officials from GE’s Renewable Energy division called Cappadona, asking if he knew how to recycle old wind turbine blades. Though Veolia recycles a broad variety of items, including computer electronics and fluorescent lamps, this was a new challenge.
“We said, ‘Send us a five-gallon can of windmill blade pieces,’” Cappadona said. “We wanted to break them down chemically to see what makes up a blade. What we found was that over 70% of the blade was silica, which is used to manufacture cement.”
Just months later, the small recycling plant in Louisiana, which had previously processed medical waste, began receiving its first shipments of wind turbine blades.
Inside its cavernous warehouse, a series of shredding machines grind up the blades into a sawdust-like material, which is then sent to another machine that sorts it by type. A thick haze of silica dust hangs in the air inside the warehouse, kept at bay with industrial air filtering equipment.
Workers moved piles of crushed turbine blades using heavy machinery on Monday, as operations manager Michael Collard supervised the process.
“If you imagined shaving all the bark off of the tree, that’s about the consistency of the wind blade material,” Collard said.
About 60 to 80 tons of pulverized blades are loaded into dump trucks and shipped from the factory each day to cement manufacturers across the country. Roughly three-quarters of the blade material will be used as raw material to make cement, while the manufacturing plants use the rest as fuel, replacing coal.
The plant has shredded nearly 2,000 blades since August 2020, and an additional 250 blades are processed per month, Collard said.
GE, one of the largest wind turbine suppliers worldwide, is a partner in Veolia’s recycling program. The company now sends the “large majority” of its used blades to the Louisiana plant, said Michelle Simpson, a senior services manager at GE Renewable Energy Digital Services.
Few U.S. recycling facilities are equipped to handle the material, which means GE must ship used turbine blades hundreds or thousands of miles.
“It’s a real balancing act,” Simpson said. “You’re now releasing carbon dioxide to transport these blades, so are you still getting the environmental benefit that you want by not landfilling them?”
But because the crushed blades can be used to replace raw silica in cement production — and reduce the amount of coal used to fuel manufacturing plants — there is still a net benefit to recycling the blades, Simpson said.
Efforts to recycle or repurpose old turbine blades will likely become increasingly important in coming years, said Berry, the wind technology engineer. “A lot of wind farms were put in place in the last 20 or 25 years, so we’re seeing a near future where quite a few of those blades will be coming down.”
Wind energy researchers worldwide are working to develop sustainable and cost-effective ways to recycle wind turbine blades, but they’re also redesigning them using different materials that can be recycled more easily.
French chemical manufacturer Arkema has developed a new form of thermoplastic resin, for instance, that can be melted down during the recycling process.
“At the same time as we’re handling the challenge that is posed to us by blades that are coming off towers now, we’re also changing our approach to the design and the manufacturing of wind turbine blades in the future to provide ourselves with more options for recycling and reuse of blades at the end of their life,” Berry said. “We want to make sure we’re making our lives easier in the future.”
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