PacifiCorp turbines head to Tenn. for recycling

Source: By Miranda Willson, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, September 29, 2020

As the first generation of U.S. wind turbines nears the end of their useful life, two major utilities have announced plans to recycle some of their turbine blades rather than dispose of them in landfills.

Portland, Ore.-based utility PacifiCorp sent 15 tons of decommissioned wind turbine blades last week to a Tennessee startup that will sort, shred and convert the materials to a new, useable form.

Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy Co. is also partnering with the startup, Carbon Rivers, to recycle some of its aging blades.

Supported by a $1.1 million grant from the Department of Energy, Carbon Rivers, based in Knoxville, Tenn., says it has found a viable way to break down the fiberglass used in the turbine blades, a process that has been hindered in the United States due to technical and economic barriers.

While at least 80% of the materials used in turbine blades are recyclable, most blades end up in landfills after about 15-20 years of use, according to an April study from the Electric Power Research Institute. By 2050, blade waste could exceed 200,000 tons per year, EPRI said.

Turbine blades are not particularly hazardous relative to other landfill waste, and they currently represent a tiny fraction of the total waste produced in the U.S., said Larry Bank, a research professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studies turbine recycling. Nonetheless, the issue has caused bad press for the wind energy industry, particularly due to the size of the blades, Bank said.

“The problem with the blade is it’s hollow inside. It’s like a giant hollow tube,” he said. “If you put this in the ground, it takes up a tremendous amount of space in the landfill.”

Carbon Rivers argues that there’s another reason not to send blades to landfills: It wastes valuable materials. The fiberglass in the blades could be reused in cars, boats, 3D printing and other applications, said Ryan Ginder, a professor of mechanical, aerospace and biomedical engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

“These are advanced engineering materials that contain valuable fiber reinforcements, so to just throw it away is a waste,” said Ginder, who is partnering with Carbon Rivers on its blade recycling technology.

PacifiCorp, which services six Western states, has typically disposed of its turbines in landfills, said spokesman Spencer Hall. But he said the utility recognizes that recycling the blades is a better option for the environment, particularly as the company increases wind energy capacity in the coming years.

“[Recycling] is the more sustainable option, so we’re excited to pursue that,” Hall said.

‘Can we move faster?’

The DOE grant will cover the costs of recycling PacifiCorp’s initial 15-ton shipment, said Carbon Rivers CEO Bowie Benson. Those turbines came from the utility’s Dunlap wind farm in Wyoming, Hall said. Beyond that, however, Carbon Rivers will need to bring down the costs of its recycling process, something Benson said could be accomplished by scaling up the technology.

“In the kind of market we’re working in, if you make more, it’s more economical,” Benson said.

Carbon Rivers’ process yields final products that are of higher value than what is produced by competing recycling companies, which will help the company commercialize its technology, Ginder said.

“We don’t really know of anybody that has something like our [process],” he said, “so we’re pretty happy and fortunate to be in the market at this point right now.”

No U.S. company has demonstrated a commercially viable path toward recycling of blades, according to Bank, the Georgia Tech researcher.

“Fiberglass is a very, very expensive material to begin with,” he said. “Grinding it down and repurposing it costs money and makes the filler not economically viable.”

Part of the challenge for fiberglass recycling companies is that they must compete with virgin fiberglass producers, said Karl Englund, an associate research professor at Washington State University and the chief technology officer at a competing recycling startup, Global Fiberglass Solutions. Compared with the recycled version, virgin fiberglass is “pretty darn cheap” to begin with, Englund said.

But with growing interest from utilities and wind turbine manufacturers to advance blade recycling technologies, turbine recycling could become more widespread and economically viable in the near future, wind energy experts say. The practice is already taking place in some European countries.

“We’re here at the right time with the solution for this,” Benson said. “The resounding demand from everybody is, ‘Can we move faster?’ That’s exactly what we’re trying to do here.”