Recycling old wind turbine blades could be the next business opportunity

Ever wonder what happens to those enormous wind turbine blades once their working life is over? Many in the renewable energy industry are looking to turn a potential landfill problem into a profitable recycling opportunity.

The reason is that the first-generation wind turbines from the 1980s are currently being replaced with newer models.

Some of the older wind turbines can be refurbished and set up elsewhere. Most have components made of valuable metals, easy to recycle if the machinery is beyond repair. The big concern is the plastic, carbon fiber, petroleum-based composite material in the blades — because the volume of discarded blades is set to increase in the coming years.

Washington State University has joined forces with Global Fiberglass Solutions Inc., a U.S. company in Washington state, to recycle decommissioned blades by breaking them down into a new composite material that has a variety of commercial and industrial uses.

 Group of wind turbines (© AP Images)
There are a lot of turbine blades on wind farms that will eventually be discarded — and maybe turned into other materials. (© AP Images)

European institutions also are looking for solutions. Germany’s industrial-scale reprocessing plant Zajons Logistik — currently the only such plant in operation in the world — recycles blades into materials used in cement. The company’s managing director Jörg Lemke told Windpower Monthly that he anticipates growth in the reprocessing field.

“I would say that about 80 percent of the old wind turbines that have been dismantled are being sold for reuse elsewhere, but that will change when newer wind farms are dismantled. Their blades are not as strong and will need to be recycled,” he said.

Back in the United States, the National Science Foundation has given nearly $2 million in grants to universities in Massachusetts and Kansas to develop biodegradable materials from sustainable sources for turbine blade manufacture. If they are successful, eco-friendly wind turbines may be on the horizon.