As the global climate emergency continues to loom over human civilization, feverish work is underway around the world to find technical and political solutions to the problem. Much has been gained in recent years, but as global emissions continue to increase, there remains much left to do to stave off the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Renewable energy has led the charge, allowing humanity to continue to enjoy the wonders of electricity with a reduced environmental impact. The future looks promising, with renewable sources becoming cheaper than traditional fossil fuel energy plants in many cases, both in the US and abroad. At the same time, the rise of renewable technologies has brought new and varied challenges to the fore, which must be dealt with in kind. Take wind energy, for instance.

Wind turbines have become a major player in the energy market. Capable of turning the weather itself into energy , and with a far smaller environmental impact than fossil fuel plants, they’ve won a lot of fans. Unfortunately, like blocks of chocolate, tech companies, or a Las Vegas marriage, wind turbines don’t last forever. Much of a modern wind turbine is made out of steel, which is highly recyclable. Infrastructure already exists, and this doesn’t pose a major problem. Turbine blades are a different story, however.

Wind turbine blades are typically made of fiberglass or carbon fiber materials. Constructed as a composite of fiber material combined with resin, they’ve thus far proven to be a difficult item to recycle. Add on the sheer size and bulk of the average turbine blade, and the problem gets even more complicated. Blades can be up to 300 feet long, and are difficult to transport. Compounding the problem, as wind farms are installed in stages, large numbers of blades can reach their end-of-life at the same time, threatening to flood waste processing facilities that don’t have the storage or facilities to deal with them.

Finding a solution takes time. Pilot programs have begun to spring up around the world to deal with this new waste stream, hoping to find a way to deal with the promised future influx of blade waste. Cement co-processing is one potential solution, in which processed fiberglass waste is used as a component of cement mixes. Some of the waste can also be burned as fuel for the process, replacing fossil fuels in this application.

These methods have the side benefit of also reducing the carbon dioxide output of the cement-making process. Carbon fiber blades are unfortunately harder to recycle, with groups exploring alternative ideas. Chemical methods may be used, such as solvolysis, or pyrolysis, using very high temperatures to break down the materials. These aim to destroy the binder material, leaving behind the fibers which can then be dealt with separately.

The fact that these challenges have come to the attention of engineers the world over should not be seen as a bad thing. Rather, the fact that these matters are under consideration shows that those pushing for renewable energy are not content to simply replace fossil fuels. Instead, environmental groups and those working in industry are keen to make sure that renewable solutions are at their cleanest and most efficient across their entire lifecycle. Doing anything less would simply not be worthwhile. As the technology develops further, it is to be expected that a litany of new opportunities will arise to further reduce emissions. All we need to do is take them!

“But when he asked what the facility did with the excess carbon trimmed off each frame—about a third of every carbon sheet is wasted—he was shocked by the answer: “They said they dump it in the ocean.” “

“Blades can be up to 300 feet long” – dump that in the ocean, and you have the makings of an artificial reef. Or a new device, to harvests tides to generate electricity.

The artificial reefs kinda work on the material containing iron, which attracts certain micro-organisms including corals. The marine ecosystem has a problem of having little iron available because it precipitates and sediments away, which is why iron is like an algae fertilizer. Where you have iron dissolving into the water, you get marine life, so the artificial reefs are typically made out of old girders or junked cars etc.

A team of US, Irish and Northern Irish researchers are developing structural applications for de-commissioned wind blades. Better than burning them. See:

That’s what I was thinking. Those big hollow trunks could make great affordable housing with some work.

Nope, me too. First thing when I saw those chopped up bits — could be a cool base for a home. Certainly way cooler than old shipping containers, though maybe not as practical to ship and modify.

i heard this story on N.P.R. and thought , what a hit piece on wind power , how about a story on cleaning up a oil well or nuke power plant you corporate whores.

This is an extension of a problem that’s been around for some time with composites (remember that fiberglass is a composite as well). Old sailboats, aircraft parts, Corvette bodies etc. don’t degrade appreciably with time, so grinding and incorporation/entombing in other materials such as concrete/asphalt etc. or just outright landfilling the compacted result is as far as we’ve gotten.

The core problem behind all of this is that the resins used to bond these are essentially permanent and can’t be re-melted or easily reused, only pyrolized with a lot of resulting pollution. There has been some work done on depolymerization using heat/pressure/plasma etc., but the resulting products are low grade and un-economical so far.

So (being a devils advocate here) if the resins are permanent and the fibres last forever why are they being “end of lifed” Is that just another term for planned obsolescence? No run them till they fail and then rush in and repair them and keep going till there’s nothing left. Rwmember the sustainability moto wear it, repair it, until it is worn out completely (something like that) and then only then you try to reuse or recycle.

No, it’s a material fatigue issue. The chunk of resin or the raw fibre itself is permanent but the bonds within the material eventually develop microcracks which link up to form larger cracks which lead to delaminations. Parts are given lives (hours or months, cycles, etc) based on analysis and testing, then they’re retired before they reach some fraction of this theoretical maximum. This is a problem with metals too. Retiring a part for its life is really common in the aerospace industry. Sometimes we don’t catch these problems.

I’ve always been fascinated with wind turbines but never once thought about them not lasting forever.