STERLING — Look north from a crest of the Logan County landfill and the wind turbines on the horizon appear like tiny pinwheels slicing bitter February gusts into a renewable and ever-larger share of Colorado’s electric power.
Now gaze downward, into the chasm gradually filling with a combination of loose dirt, garbage and plastic bags — lots of plastic bags — and prepare to see another perspective: the hulking remnants of a discarded turbine blade.
As thousands of the blades outlive their useful life and give way to new, and often larger and more efficient replacements, the pristine twirling arms of the clean-energy economy smack headlong into the reality that nearly all the used-up blades end up buried in a landfill. As the soldiers forming perhaps the most visible front lines of the clean-energy wars, the aged-out behemoths pose not only an issue of disposal, but of image.
It’s not that the materials are toxic. The mostly fiberglass and steel structures pose no health threat to soil or groundwater. The state health department puts no restrictions on their disposal and leaves it to local landfills whether to accept them, or not.
But recycling the blades presents some formidable technical challenges. Only recently has the possibility emerged of converting the materials to uses, such as pallets, guardrails and railroad ties, and, further down the road, to manufacture new blades. And one company on the leading edge of taking such a process to market has eyed Colorado as a logistically favorable location for one of its plants.
For now, the wind energy industry — which now accounts for more than 17% of Colorado’s electricity — faces broadsides from both skeptics and competitors claiming the landfill issue blows a hole in its sustainable energy narrative.
Most recently, Bloomberg News photos of a landfill in Casper, Wyoming, showing rows of blade segments undergoing burial have pushed the issue to what Golden-based Derek Berry, a senior wind technology engineer for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, calls a “crossroads in wind turbine blade design.”
“The very sight of big wind turbine blades being buried up in Wyoming in landfills evokes a strong reaction from a lot of people, especially about a green industry,” Berry says. “It’s not so much that blades in landfills are going to cause incredible harm, but if we put them into the landfill, we’ll never use that material again. It’s about two things: creating a circular economy, and image.”
By circular economy, he means developing ways to make components reusable within the industry — such as old turbine blades turned into new ones. The major players in the wind energy world, companies like GE and Vestas and Nordex, for instance, all take a “fairly green approach to our world,” Berry says, and don’t want to be seen any other way, whether it’s in manufacturing or the end-of-life approach to their blades.
“It comes down to being a responsible company — and some of that is image as well,” Berry adds. “But it’s also reality, and trying to make sure that we reuse materials and not throw them away. Even though it’s not hazardous, it’s an important area for all these companies and us in research as well.”
Greg Alvarez, spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association, calls disposal “an emerging issue” but also pushes back on the idea that burying the blades in landfills betrays its commitment to going green.
“It can be a little striking when you see the size of the blades,” Alvarez says of the photos from the Casper landfill. “But it’s important to keep in context the blades’ place in the waste stream in this country.”
For that, he points to a study by the independent, nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute, which estimates that 2.1 million tons of wind turbine blade waste will be generated between now and 2050. Alvarez juxtaposes that number with 139 million tons of solid waste the Environmental Protection Agency says went into landfills in 2017 alone.
“All of the blade waste we may be producing over the next 30 years is equal to .015% of all the new municipal waste that goes into landfills in one year,” he says.
That aside, the AWEA continues to anticipate opportunities to recycle — a proposition that, for fiberglass, is in the “nascent stages.” Alvarez notes that Danish turbine maker Vestas, with manufacturing operations in Colorado, has announced a zero-waste goal for 2040, with intermediate targets along the way. He also points to a study that found, over a 20-year life cycle, a 2 megawatt turbine repays the energy required to produce and install it and yields a net benefit within five to eight months of operation.
Most blades reach the end of their useful life after somewhere between 10 and 20 years, Alvarez says, noting that more modern versions will last closer to 30 years and can be repaired.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects wind turbine service technicians as the second-fastest growing occupation between 2018 and 2028, at 57% growth. (The fastest also comes from the renewable energy industry — solar photovoltaic installers.)
“A lot of the changeouts come from technology,” Alvarez says. “I’d say it’s an emerging issue for our industry, but we’re taking proactive steps to reduce its small, safe impacts.”
But for now, landfills catch the vast majority of turbine blades.
In Wyoming, where wind energy has sprouted across the blustery landscape, tension between renewable energy and the state’s long history with oil, gas and coal still surfaces. So eyebrows were raised when the city of Casper’s landfill made national news for accepting hundreds of blades from the state’s three wind farms.
Cindy Langston, the Casper solid waste division manager, was shocked by the public response, which she says came largely from people who mistakenly believed that their landfill was being forced to take the turbine blades.
“We get all kinds of waste here, everything in the world,” Langston says. “This is the least problematic waste in terms of environmental concerns that we’ve ever gotten. We get tires, asbestos, contaminated soil, pretty nasty stuff. The turbine blades were just big.”
They’re also a financial boon to the landfill. Langston estimates that the blades will bring in about $500,000 this year — which helps significantly with her $7 million budget. At last count, the Casper facility had accepted 784 blades, with about 100 more on the way.
“It’s going to be sporadic,” Langston says. “The farms are going to be refurbished as needed. These current farms are old, so the blades are coming in now. They may not come back to us for a decade or more, depending on technology. It’s not a consistent source of disposal revenue for us.”
Still, some Wyoming legislators took note, and introduced a bill in the current session that would prohibit state landfills from accepting the blades.
Rep. Bunky Loucks, a 52-year-old office products supplier from Natrona County, which includes Casper, says the proposed law wasn’t a slap at the landfill. Instead, it reflected backlash to the notion of a “green” energy source he sees as failing to live up to its billing.
“We’re trying to send a message that wind energy needs to be green like it says it is, not filling our landfills and taking space,” Loucks says. “(The blades) need to be repurposed — period. The industry needs to be what it says it is, green and sustainable. I just think in 30 years we don’t want to have to dig them up because there was something in there we didn’t know about.”
Langston says there’s plenty of room in Casper to accommodate blades well into the 2030s before the landfill would have to consider adding another cell. Loucks wonders whether the space-hogging blades could trigger a costly expansion much sooner than anticipated. He acknowledges that he should have spoken with her Langston before running the bill. She strongly opposes it.
The bill’s fate was to be decided on Tuesday.
“It is a public image thing,” Langston says of all the fuss. “One of the most problematic things we get is waste tires. Used tires use a lot more space than the turbine farms. Water gets in, it’s a magnet for mosquitos and expensive to shred. When the (Bloomberg News) photographer came to take pictures, you could see as many tires in the next cell as blades, but nobody says anything.”
The landfill has specified that the 120-foot blades arrive cut into 40-foot sections so they can be easily unloaded from trucks and buried. Langston noted there has also been talk about allowing out-of-commission coal mines to accept them.
She says that while she’s heard rumors that other states, like Colorado, might express interest in sending used blades to Casper, that hasn’t happened. And if it did, she’d have to update the landfill permit to accept waste from outside the state.
All the blades buried in the Casper landfill have been marked with GPS coordinates, she adds, so that if the recycling technology takes off they can be resurrected and reused.
More than 2,000 wind turbines churn across Colorado’s wide-open spaces. Their blades have an average lifespan of around 20 years, according to power provider Xcel Energy. Gradually, some are being replaced.
Late last year, the Prowers Journal reported that Colorado Green Holdings had obtained a permit to reduce its presence south of Lamar to 100 turbines from 108 and install some longer blades and upgraded components. The story mentioned that the used blades would be cut up and shipped to Commerce City for disposal.
The privately owned Republic Services Tower Landfill, near Denver International Airport, accepts the blades, although it declined to elaborate very far beyond an emailed statement: “The disposal of these materials will not impact the overall life expectancy of our facility as compared to any other building and construction demolition project or soil and coal ash remediation project.”
The facility says the blades will be cut into pieces and crushed flat with a 120,000-pound landfill trash compactor.
Wind farm owners contacted by The Colorado Sun were mostly unresponsive to requests to talk about blade disposal, though Xcel noted in a statement that its Ponnequin Wind Farm near the Wyoming border will be decommissioned later this year, a process that will include removing equipment.
Colorado’s mostly small, rural landfills that are closest to the wind farms haven’t had the capacity to enjoy the financial boon the Wyoming facility does. And some of them are just fine with leaving disposal to someone else.
Several years ago, the Kit Carson County landfill accepted a couple of blades, but workers’ experience there echoed a theme that would haunt other small operators. Even the landfill’s 25-ton compactor, a piece of heavy equipment with spiked rollers, couldn’t break up the beasts. They tried accepting one more blade, but this time cut it into smaller sections. In the end, the blades weren’t worth the trouble and the county no longer takes them, solid waste supervisor Randy Gorton says.
“We spent hours trying to bust them up, cut them up with chainsaws,” Gorton recalls. “What we got paid for them wasn’t close to what it cost to get rid of them. You don’t realize how tough they are till you’ve seen them cut open. You can cut them up, but it takes forever. They’re strong, built to last and not easy to handle.”
Doing some quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation, Gorton figures that an average uncut blade would eat up about 7 cubic yards of space. While that may not sound like a lot, he further estimates that the space could accommodate somewhere between 7,000 and 11,000 pounds of trash.
Lincoln County, which also sits in the shadow of wind turbines, had similar problems wrestling with the blades.
“I damn sure don’t want them out here in my landfill,” says Nick Jacques, who manages the facility near Limon. “You can’t crush or cover them, and it takes landfill space. We’re just a small landfill.”
Ultimately, the county commissioners voted to prohibit them.
Several years ago, a truck carrying an entire blade, intact, pulled up to the scale at the Logan County landfill. Supervisor Matt Chrisp turned it away.
“That was several years ago, I guess that was one of the first ones that I’d seen,” Chrisp recalls. “They had been here previously and showed me what it was made up of, and we talked. But somehow the length issue didn’t get communicated through channels. I can’t handle a 90-foot fan blade. It’s just a practicality situation.”
Eventually, an agreement was reached: the landfill would take the blades, but only if they were pre-cut into sections no longer than 10 feet. They see maybe two a year these days. Rick Cullip, Chrisp’s assistant, drives his pickup down to where the remains of one blade are still visible. He walks to where a panel juts out from the trash and pulls at the torn fiberglass to reveal the layers that make the blades so flexible, yet tough.
He points to a large section a few feet away that wasn’t cut quite correctly — instead of trimming the blade close to the point where a steel ring and bolts attached it to the turbine, it was cut in an 8-foot length that’s practically an uncrushable cylinder. Empty space is anathema to landfills.
“That one ring, there really isn’t a lot we can do with it,” Cullip says. “We’ll stuff as much trash in it as possible, then bury it. If we get them to properly dismantle these, it works great.”
Chrisp has talked with county commissioners and other locals about the wind farms, and has concluded that it’s extremely difficult to make recycling — the end result — be green, especially in the wide-open spaces where Colorado’s wind farms are scattered. The state ranks eighth in the nation for generating capacity.
“We have challenges out here in the middle of nowhere,” Chrisp says. “We don’t have any end markets close by. Every mile you transport something down the highway, you’re increasing your carbon footprint, greenhouse gases and all that. These windmills are a perfect example.”
The idea that the blades’ useful life didn’t have to end in a landfill dates back more than a decade for Don Lilly.
The CEO of Washington state-based Global Fiberglass Solutions has been researching ways to convert blade material for a variety of uses since 2009. Lilly says it’s taken that long to reach the stage where the company stands on the cusp of having its first processing plant, in Sweetwater, Texas, up and running. Texas ranks as the national leader, by a considerable margin, in generating wind energy.
“It’s been one of those things that’s been an uphill battle along the way,” he says, “to get ourselves in position to do some things we think could be of real value.”
Early research and development focused on breaking down a blade. A process that used to take 4-6 workers about 90 minutes to safely slice a 37-meter blade in two now takes 2-3 workers 10-15 minutes to cut and load. The research then transitioned to material science, which revealed possible uses such as polymer concrete, guardrails and manhole covers. Higher-end solutions pointed toward the manufacture of construction materials such as substrate flooring, which could take advantage of the moisture resistant qualities of fiberglass.
“The sense we got early on was, when you think about fiberglass, you don’t want something to be in a landfill for the next 500 years,” Lilly says. “Even in America, where we might have room, if something could make these blades reusable, why not use it instead of sticking it in the ground?”
Lilly says he’s been in discussions with economic development people in Limon, a location he calls “sort of unique on our logistical map,” for a processing plant that could employ up to 100 people. But first, the company wants to get its “showcase” plant in Sweetwater up and running. It also will open a facility in Newton, Iowa. Iowa ranks a distant second to Texas in installed capacity.
“The time frame depends on how fast the investment dollars for us work,” he says. “First and foremost, we want to crawl before we walk. We want to make sure everybody understands in full detail how our Sweetwater facility will work so they’ve got a good understanding of what we’d be putting together for a processing facility in Limon.”
Some of the other products Lilly envisions coming to life with the discarded turbine blades: railroad ties, panels, decking boards, pallets, cargo containers and various materials that could be integrated into the construction of recreational vehicles.
“I didn’t start out to be an environmentalist,” Lilly says, “but I became one quick when I realized that these blades don’t need to be in a landfill and there’s a viable solution.”
But in moving toward the circular economy that Berry and his colleagues at NREL, as well as industry partners and the Colorado School of Mines, see as an ultimate goal would involve reusing the material from the old blades to make new blades.
So they’ve been working to solve the most vexing problem in fiberglass recycling — how to create resins that, when a blade has outlived its usefulness, can be returned to a liquid state. Current resins, called thermosets, react under heat during production and become solid, but the process can’t be reversed. Berry likens it to breaking an egg and cooking it. There’s no returning it to its liquid state.
But in the past four or five years, NREL has been researching new material systems — thermoplastic resins — that could be recovered under high heat, while also recovering the blades’ fiberglass and core, usually balsa or foam. In other words, uncracking the egg.
“That’s the research, but it’s not a reality yet,” Berry says. “Nobody is producing wind turbine blades that way now.”
He sees the work of Global Fiberglass Solutions as a bridge to that future — and a potentially significant business opportunity. End users will have to make choices. Either pay landfills to take the blades or look to a company like GFS to recycle them for other uses. Berry says he’s even heard of some wind energy companies storing the used blades above ground, waiting for a better solution than landfills.
Not so long ago, he notes, recycling wind turbine blades wasn’t a hugely important topic among industry leaders.
“There’s been a sea change the last five or six years, where a circular economy is much more important to industry partners,” Berry says. “It’s a combination of understanding that we want to live in a world where you recycle materials instead of put them in a landfill, and the fact they see down the road that there could be cost-efficient, economically viable ways to recycle.”