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Not Gone with the Wind: The Looming Turbine Blade Waste Problem

Sophia Sepulveda Harms


  • Addresses the waste problem in the wind industry as turbine blades are made of carbon fiber or glass-reinforced composites, which are difficult to recycle.
  • Discusses the current lack of federal laws regulating the disposal of turbine blades.
  • Looks at two potential ways to address the turbine blade waste problem in the United States.
Not Gone with the Wind: The Looming Turbine Blade Waste Problem
owngarden via Getty Images

I. The Blade Waste Threat to Landfill Capacity

Over the last decade, wind energy has become the number one source of renewable electricity, providing a total U.S. wind power capacity of over 100 gigawatts (GW), or enough energy to power 32 million homes. Current trends indicate this capacity will continue to increase; the Department of Energy (DOE) predicts that total wind generating capacity will reach 224 GW by 2030 and 404 GW by 2050.

Due to the relative youth of the industry, U.S. wind farm operators and policy makers have yet to face the problems associated with decommissioning wind farms. The average lifespan of a wind turbine is 15 to 25 years; in the United States, the average age of the wind fleet as of 2019 was 9.25 years. As wind farms approach the age of decommissioning (and turbine blades are prematurely replaced with newer technology), the magnitude of waste continues to grow. Experts predict that cumulative blade waste in the United States will reach four million tons by 2050.

The waste problem in the wind industry stems from the challenges posed by turbine blades. Approximately 85 to 90 percent of a wind turbine is recyclable, comprising materials like steel and concrete, which can be recycled economically. However, turbine blades are made of carbon fiber or glass-reinforced composites, which are difficult to separate using prevailing recycling methods. As a result, blades in the United States are currently disposed in landfills. The blades are nontoxic and pose no health threat to soil or groundwater, but the immense size of the blades and strength of the composite material poses serious challenges to landfill operators, driving up costs and disincentivizing small waste management utilities from accepting the blades.

II. A Lack of Legislation

The U.S. approach to managing end-of-life materials has been largely market-driven, and currently no federal laws regulate the disposal of turbine blades. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does have the authority to promulgate a national system of solid waste control under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which sets minimum federal criteria for the operation of municipal and industrial waste landfills and provides guidance in the development of state solid waste management plans. While the act also sets mandatory prohibitions regarding the disposal of non-hazardous waste, it does not address solid composite waste challenges.

The lack of federal regulation can be partially attributed to the primary role of state and local regulations of the wind industry. These regulations have typically addressed wind energy standards such as setback and turbine height requirements but have not addressed decommissioning requirements. States have only recently begun to adopt wind farm decommissioning regulations; for instance, Texas passed decommissioning legislation as recently as 2019. While these regulations vary in scope, they generally require the wind energy operator to demonstrate evidence of financial security to provide for the eventual removal of turbines and restoration of the land. Importantly, these laws fall short of regulating what happens to turbine materials after they are removed from an area.

State renewable portfolio standards (RPS), which require utilities to meet a certain amount of their customer’s power needs with renewable sources, amplify the effects of the failure of the regulatory framework to address disposal issues. RPS requirements exist in thirty states, Washington, D.C., and three territories; some are so expansive as to mandate 100 percent renewable energy by some specified future date. These requirements have played an important role in motivating the growth of wind energy facilities, yet policy makers have failed to address the associated waste consequences.

III. Incentivizing Progress

It is inevitable that the United States will face a turbine blade waste problem in the coming years. Two potential ways to address the burgeoning blade waste problem in the country are: 1. regulating landfills at the federal or state level, and 2. creating a new tax regime to fund development of recycling and recovery technology.

A. Landfill Regulations

The first solution involves the adoption of waste management regulations at the federal or state levels. Currently, at the federal level, the EPA encourages the adoption of a waste management hierarchy through RCRA, which designates recovery and resource conservation as the preferred method of waste management. Rather than simply encouraging states to pursue this course, the EPA could mandate it by defining composite waste as a recoverable resource. Regardless of the form these regulations take, the EPA has the authority under RCRA to meet the expanding challenge of blade waste by indirectly incentivizing the development of alternate waste management technologies.

At the state and local level, governments could ban composite waste in landfills altogether. Such bans would not only force the industry to ensure alternative forms of waste treatment exist, but also that such facilities are located near areas with high turbine density. Nevertheless, such a method leaves wind farm operators without any options for waste treatment while the industry works to develop alternative forms of waste treatment and build commercial-scale facilities.

B.  A New Tax Regime 

The second solution requires the development and implementation of a new federal tax regime surrounding turbine construction and waste management.

In the first stage, a “recycling tax” would be imposed on blade purchases. Revenue from the tax would be directed to the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to collaborate with industry actors on materials research. Research and innovation efforts are already underway at the NREL, where engineers are experimenting with a recyclable thermoplastic resin material. Additional resources could serve an important role in accelerating this research, or to assist the NREL in adopting and replicating the composite recycling technology recently unveiled by turbine manufacturer Vestas.

The proposed tax would also serve the important role of funding technology and market development for the handling of conventional wind blades. The use of recycling technologies is cost effective only if the value of the reclaimed material is greater than the cost of the recycling process. Therefore, research and innovation focus is needed not only to develop these technologies on a commercial scale, but also to identify suitable markets for the recycled material.

Finally, the tax revenue would fund research to determine where waste material is concentrated to ensure a steady stream of composite feedstock. Facility location is particularly critical to reducing transportation distances, which currently stand as the highest cost in blade processing and handling. Moreover, transportation distance can also affect the environmental suitability of recycling, as transportation over shorter distances will reduce fuel consumption.

In the second stage, once recycling or recovery facilities are available on a commercial scale, the tax code could be used again to provide incentives for wind farm owners to choose blade recovery over disposal. Since the 1970s, policy makers have used the tax code to support diverse energy policy objectives with incentives like the production tax credit (PTC). Similar to the PTC, which rewards a per-kilowatt-hour tax credit for electricity generated from renewable sources, the second stage of the proposed tax regime could reward credits to operators based on the amount of blade waste recycled rather than landfilled. These tax credits would act as a subsidy to make recycling and recovery preferable to solid waste disposal.