What to Know About Recycling Wind Turbine Blades

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on January 09, 2023

The renewable energy industry focuses on creating lasting sources of energy that power this planet without causing any long-term harm. Wind power generates energy in a relatively safe way for as long as humans are around to harvest it. One concern for the future of the wind industry surrounds the recycling of wind turbine blades.

A major issue in the renewable energy field involves figuring out what to do with old and discontinued parts like the large blades on wind turbines. At present, the easiest option for the wind energy industry is to simply discard the blades in landfills. This creates its own environmental hazards and isn’t an ideal solution. Luckily, some of the most recent innovations in this field deal with ways of recycling wind turbine blades.

What Are Wind Turbines? 

Wind turbines are a major source of renewable energy. They convert the energy in wind— kinetic energy — into mechanical energy. The wind turns a set of large blades. This motion spins a generator that creates usable electricity.

Wind energy is considered a source of renewable energy because the wind is a limitless resource. The planet is unlikely to ever run out of wind, unlike fossil fuels. Because of this, the wind energy industry is expected to steadily grow until at least 2050.

Wind turbines produce energy worldwide. They tend to be clustered together at sites known as wind farms, which are located either on land or out in the ocean.

What Are Wind Turbines Made Of?

Each individual wind turbine has approximately 8,000 different parts, including machinery, wiring, and electronic components.

The most common design is called a horizontal axis model. These turbines consist of a rotor with three blades attached to a central hub. This hub is anchored to a central piece called a nacelle. The nacelle is mounted on a large steel tower.

These structures are huge and can often be seen for miles around. This is especially true near wind farms, where the turbines dominate the landscape.

In the U.S., most individual blades are around 164 feet long — about the width of a standard football field. Some of the largest blades range from around 197 feet to the longest at about 262 feet. It’s likely that the industry will focus more and more on these longer blades in the future because they’re often able to produce greater amounts of energy than their shorter counterparts.

The components of a wind turbine are made of common metals, including copper and steel, and a variety of plastics. Unlike the tower and nacelle, the blades consist mostly of a material called fiberglass.

Fiberglass is a combination of glass and plastic. These materials combine to create a lightweight, durable substance that’s ideal for both generating electricity and enduring storms.

Are Wind Turbines Recyclable?

Today’s wind turbines can last for about 25 years before they need to be upgraded or decommissioned entirely. When a turbine is decommissioned, about 85% of its components can either be recycled or reused. This includes parts like the large steel frame, copper wires, and many different electrical components.

But composite materials like the fiberglass blades are difficult to recycle. This is because it’s hard to separate the plastic and glass found within the blades. They also require large, specialized tools to cut them to a reasonable size for transport. These tools, like vehicle-mounted wire saws and diamond wire saws, are typically used in rock quarries.

One of the biggest problems the wind turbine industry faces is figuring out what to do with the blades when a wind turbine is decommissioned or upgraded. Currently, the cheapest and easiest solution is to move the blades to the nearest landfill and simply leave them there. Otherwise, they’re brought to storage facilities and left there instead.

By the end of 2023, companies and government agencies estimate that 14,000 wind turbine blades will need to be disposed of in Europe alone. That’s around 60,000 tons of material with nowhere to go but a landfill. 

This problem will only continue to get worse as the demand for wind energy grows and wind turbines age. By 2050, the world will likely have 43 million tons of decommissioned blades to deal with. Two million of these tons will come from the U.S. alone. 

Various companies and government agencies are coming together to create innovative recycling solutions for these giant problems before they become overwhelming.

Are Wind Turbine Blades Bad For the Environment? 

Wind turbine blades contribute only a small fraction of the total mass that goes into landfills yearly. Wind energy generates less composite waste than many other industries. By 2025, the wind turbine industry is expected to contribute only about 10% of the composite waste products to the pool of these problematic materials. Other industries that generate composite waste include ones that make things like: 

  • Construction and building materials
  • Electronics
  • Aeronautics
  • Tanks
  • Pipes
  • Marine equipment

Even though they’re only a small part of a larger problem, wind turbine blades still raise environmental concerns. For example, they could leach plastics into the environment while sitting in a landfill year after year.

What Are the Options For Wind Turbine Blade Recycling?

Numerous companies worldwide are teaming up with government agencies to find creative solutions to this wind turbine blade problem. The ideas they’re coming up with fall into three broad categories: 

  • Finding ways to repurpose old blades
  • Finding better ways to break down old blades
  • Discovering new materials that can create better blades for the future

Some ideas that companies have for reusing old blades include incorporating them into powerline structures and towers, roofing for emergency or affordable housing projects, or pedestrian bridges.

Other companies are working on better ways to break down blades into smaller pieces. This way they’re easier and cheaper to transport over long distances. When broken down small enough, they can be turned into pellets and sheets that can be used in a variety of ways. 

One company has created a product named EcoPoly Pellets that are made from fiberglass and is developing sheets of material made from recycled fiberglass. These new materials can then be used to create many useful products, including: 

Finally, other groups are attempting to make wind turbine blades from materials that are easier to break down and recycle. At present, at least one company aims to design a zero-waste turbine. Some of the materials under consideration as fiberglass replacements include bioresins, thermoplastic resins, and 3R resins. 

The problem of wind turbine blade recycling is one that requires creativity and innovation to solve. Governments and companies around the world are hard at work on this task. With enough time, attention, and effort wind turbine recycling is a problem that humanity is more than capable of managing in the decades to come.

Show Sources

Department of Energy: “Map: Projected Growth of the Wind Industry From Now Until 2050.” 
TETHYS: “Sustainable Alternatives for Wind Turbine Blade Disposal.” 
Union of Concerned Scientists: “Wind Turbine Blades Don’t Have To End Up In Landfills.” 
Wind Europe: “Accelerating Wind Turbine Blade Circularity.”

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