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Worn-down Wind Turbines Headed to Landfills Because Recycling Is Too Expensive: Study

Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: July 22, 2022
40 million tons of wind turbines are headed to the landfills because recycling the components is cost prohibitive, a study states
Wind turbines in front of a coal-fired power plant in Germany on July 13, 2022. Green energy has its share of problems. Wind turbine blades, which only have a 10 to 20 year lifespan, are headed to landfills by the millions of tons because they're too expensive to recycle. (Image: INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images)

In the latest blow to the so-called “green” and “renewable” energy movement, a recent study released by Australian scientists has sounded the alarm that because wind turbines simply aren’t recyclable in anything resembling a cost effective model, after their short lifespan is complete, they’ll destined to become more waste in the landfills. 

In a June 23 release for the study, the University of South Australia quoted lead researcher Professor Peter Majewski as explaining the problem in a way that anyone can understand. “The same features that make these blades cost-effective and reliable for use in commercial wind turbines make them very difficult to recycle in a cost-effective fashion.”

“As it is so expensive to recycle them, and the recovered materials are worth so little, it is not realistic to expect a market-based recycling solution to emerge, so policymakers need to step in now and plan what we’re going to do with all these blades that will come offline in the next few years,” Majewski added.

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The article estimated that by 2050, 40 million tons of wind turbine blades would wind up in the trash worldwide.

The figure is huge, as wind turbines alone will amount to 2 percent of an entire year of humanity’s non recyclable waste.

According to data published by the World Bank, the entire world produces about 2 billion tons of trash annually, “With at least 33 percent of that—extremely conservatively—not managed in an environmentally safe manner.”

Majewski suggested that the only solution for the industry was to begin factoring the exceptional cost of recycling into the costs of manufacturing or the costs of operation.

But this approach comes with another problem, “If manufacturers disappear, or wind farms go broke, we need to ensure processes are still in place for the turbine blades to be disposed of properly,” the Professor stated.

“Without such solutions, energy options like wind and solar may prove to be no more sustainable than the old technologies they are aiming to replace,” he added.

A June 23 article by state messaging outlet Australia Broadcasting Corporation explained that the turbine blades are far from sustainable. They have the average life of a car at a meager 10 to 20 years.

Additionally, they are “made from a mixture of composite materials including glass fibre, carbon fibre, polyester and epoxy resins,” the outlet stated.

The article quoted Majewski further as calling on the government to provide socialized subsidies to offset the cost overruns of recycling.

ABC spoke with Tilt Renewables, a local wind farm which admitted that the recycling process is “complex.”

“The purpose is to separate the polymer resin and fibre composites and once they’re separated, the resins are usually used for energy production while the fibre composites can be reused or recycled,” a spokesperson revealed.

The company added that the only “industrial-scale factory for reprocessing wind turbine blades” was in Germany, and they only process 60,000 tons per year.

Majewski put the problem into perspective, “One blade is roughly the size of an airplane wing, and they just can’t be left in landfills.”

Not just wind

The situation described is not an isolated phenomenon.

As Europe has endured a major heatwave caused by a curious high pressure dome, reports have emerged that although sunny days have been a boon for the region’s solar power industry, a fundamental problem has emerged. 

The hotter it is, the less efficient the panels are.

Additionally, the record heat has nerfed the ability of wind turbines to generate power due to both a lack of wind and aerodynamics, meaning solar farms are merely struggling to fill the green energy gap. 

German spot electricity prices have been nearly three times higher than the U.S. average amid Europe’s escalating energy crisis.

Moreover, July 14 reporting by the Los Angeles Times revealed that California was facing exactly the same problem, but with more than a million homes and buildings equipped with government subsidized solar panels facing their end-of-life date in the coming years.

The problem, the outlet explained, is that although 80 percent of a panel is made with recyclable material, taking them apart requires specialized equipment and trained technicians. 

Then, the components have to be cooked in specialized furnaces, which naturally consumes electricity, which is still primarily generated by burning natural gas.

Quoting a local recycler, in the end, there’s only about $4 worth of material available to be reclaimed from each panel.

“That skews the economic incentives against recycling. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated that it costs roughly $20 to $30 to recycle a panel versus $1 to $2 to send it to a landfill,” the article stated.