Author: Dorian Overhus (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)
Contributors: Andrew Monko and Don Lilly (Global Fiberglass Solutions)
Decommissioned wind turbine blades in a Global Fiberglass Solution staging yard in Sweetwater, Texas, U.S.
Although wind turbine blades represent a tiny portion of U.S. landfill waste and are among the least environmentally harmful materials entering landfills (AWEA 2020), the disposition of fiberglass wind turbine blades is a significant challenge facing the industry. Worldwide, 43 million tons of decommissioned wind turbine blades will need to be disposed of by 2050 (Liu and Claire 2017). In the U.S. alone, over 2 million tons of wind turbine blades will need to be disposed of by 2050 (Copperman et al. 2021). For wind energy, strong, yet lightweight fiberglass blades allow turbine blades to spin more efficiently and produce more output than other materials, but as a glass composite, they resist biodegrading over time and are challenging to recycle (EPRI 2020). Until recently, solid waste landfill disposition or incineration have been the two main waste management options for decommissioned fiberglass, both of which present undesirable environmental impacts, such as air pollution and leeching. In addition, technology advancements are leading to larger wind turbines, creating an even bigger challenge for end-of-life disposal. With an increasing number of wind turbine blades reaching the end of their service life, sustainable alternatives for turbine blade disposition are being developed that include recycled products and repurposing blades for additional uses.
Examples of products made from recycled fiberglass (left to right): crushed fiberglass composite material, pellet production process, fiber-reinforced plastic pellets and composite panel.
Global Fiberglass Solutions (GFS), which launched in 2009, collects fiberglass composite waste from the wind energy, aerospace, automotive, and marine industries to make recycled products. These products include manufacturing-grade fibers, pellets, and construction materials that can compete with virgin material products for price, quality, and durability. GFS is developing solutions to address recycling challenges related to inadequate technology, no regional support for recycling initiatives, and the lack of necessary equipment to produce a viable clean waste fiberglass operation. For example, GFS is working to increase the efficiency of cutting and hauling fiberglass from wind farm locations to processing plants and precisely track material for regulatory compliance and public transparency. In addition, they are developing a viable process to recycle fiberglass material through grinding, refinement, fractionization, and metal separation, and determining what products to manufacture. Initial prototypes include raw panels, railroad ties, pallets, manhole covers, and light poles, as well as bulk pellets and fibers. Demand is growing for recycled materials, particularly in areas where companies and government entities are mandated to use recycled products, such as in California, U.S. or in the U.K. (CalRecycle 2020; Environmental Law 2020). GFS will be focusing on developing recycled substrate panels and raw feedstock pellets.
Other decommissioned wind turbine blade reuse and recycle programs and ideas have included pedestrian bridges, housing material, playground equipment, artificial reefs, and other recycled fiberglass products (Re-Wind 2020; Bank et al. 2018; Meinhold 2012; Rahnama 2011). Additionally, novel materials are in development which would allow wind turbines to be more easily recycled, allowing for high-value uses for recovered blade material (Willson 2020; Murray et al. 2020).
In summary, repurposing fiberglass wind turbine blades into sustainable alternatives has many benefits, including promoting a cradle-to-grave lifecycle with a low environmental impact; reducing landfill waste and pollution; providing low-cost infrastructure to local communities; and producing high-value fiberglass feedstock and low-cost reusable commodities. However, more research is needed to develop low-cost solutions for recycling and reuse of wind turbine blades and provide sustainable alternatives to landfill disposal.
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