Spokane Journal of Business

Guest Commentary: New purpose for old blades bodes well for wind power

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Would you believe in the future when a cement truck shows up to pour your foundation or patio, the mixture could contain ground up wind turbine blades?

As a part of new agreement between GE Renewable Energy and Veolia North America, old blades, consisting mostly of fiberglass, are shredded at a processing facility in Missouri and then shipped to cement plants across America where they replace coal, sand, and clay in manufacturing.

“Last summer, we completed a trial using a GE blade, and we were very happy with the results. This fall we have processed more than 100 blades so far, and our customers have been very pleased with the product,” Veolia’s Bob Cappadona told Waste Dive.

More than 65% of the blade weight replaces raw materials that would otherwise be added to the kiln to create the cement, and about 28% of the blade weight provides energy for the chemical reaction that takes place in the kiln.

The new concoction results in a 27% net reduction in CO2 emissions and a 13% net reduction in water consumption during manufacturing.

In the past researchers were skeptical about recycling wind blades. For example, Principia Scientific International, a London-based group of scientists, concluded: “There is just too much plastic-composite-epoxy crapola that isn’t worth recycling.” 

Thanks to good old American ingenuity, “repurposing” has become possible. GE calls it “circular economy for composite materials.”

While wind farms generate greenhouse gas-free electricity, worn out and smaller obsolete blades have been cut up and hauled to landfills for burial. The problem has become overwhelming with more than 8,000 turbines to be removed in each of the next four years in the U.S. alone and it’s growing worldwide. According to German fiberglass manufacturer, Ahlstrom-Munksjö Dettingen, the wind industry will generate 50,000 tons of blade waste in 2020, but that will quadruple to 225,000 tons by 2034.

Wind energy is getting lots of attention now. It is an important part of President-elect Joe Biden’s goal of cutting U.S. carbon emissions to net zero “no later than 2050.” Washington, California, and Hawaii have established targets of 100% renewable electricity by 2045.

To increase generation, many existing wind towers are being raised to accommodate bigger blades. For example, PacifiCorp is spending $200 million raising its 117 towers near Dayton to 250 feet tall from 200. The project adds 35% to the site’s generating capacity.

Many of those giant blades are shipped to the Port of Vancouver, Washington, off-loaded, and trucked to sites across the Pacific Northwest, including Canada.

Today, wind generates 7.3% of our nation’s electricity from more than 58,000 turbines. Since 2005, we have constructed an estimated 3,000 wind towers a year, and that pace is expected to accelerate.

Along with growing generating capacity, our countrys, wind sector’s workforce is expanding. Today it is 120,000 people of which 6,500 are Washington and Oregon.

For Washingtonians, the declining price of wind electricity is important. Homeowners and energy-intensive industries rely on low-cost power. After hydro, wind is the lowest cost renewable.

Since 1980 wind energy costs have steadily dropped from over 55 cents per kilowatt-hour to under 3 cents per kWh in the U.S. today.

The promising innovation is now that recycling blades into cement is possible, a big hurdle to increased wind generation has been removed.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst and writer. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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