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Wind power companies lack strategies in place for disposal of aging turbines

As thousands of wind turbines go up throughout the United States, companies seem ill prepared for when the blades stop spinning.

Like all mechanical creations, turbines eventually wear out, and their parts need replacement. The old parts will need to be disposed of, but few companies have created end-of-life strategies for aging wind turbines, which could lead to logistical problems down the road, said Richard Williams, president of Houston-based Shell WindEnergy Inc.

“I don’t believe it’s been addressed because the industry is still young,” Williams said. “So people are thinking about ‘How do we get them up and running,’ thinking about what you do when 20 years are up and the blades need to be replaced. It’s not an issue now, but it’s going to be an issue pretty soon.”

Wind turbine blades aren’t so easily cast aside in a landfill – the average blade is about a football field in length. When Shell has to replace any malfunctioning blades, those blades are chopped up into 10-foot sections before being put in a landfill, Williams said.

But it’s not a problem Shell, or many other companies, have to address yet. As with many wind investors and turbine manufacturers, Shell’s wind turbines are fairly new – the oldest is 10 years old – and they have “at least 10 years to go,” Williams said.

In addition to West Texas, Shell has wind projects in Wyoming, California, Colorado and West Virginia.

Other wind developers and manufacturers said they have decommissioning plans in place for retiring wind turbines or replacing malfunctioning parts, but wouldn’t specify what those plans entail.

Vestas, a Denmark-based manufacturer and installer of wind turbines, including turbines in Texas, hasn’t planned for wind turbines’ eventual disposal yet, but most of the parts on the company’s turbines are recyclable, said Andrew Longeteig, a spokesman for Vestas in North America. But it isn’t a topic that companies are rushing to think about, he said.

“Our turbines in Texas are less than 10 years old, and the average life span is 20 years old,” he said. “We also have some in California from the 1980s that are still running.”

Houston-based BP Alternative Energy North America also hasn’t dealt much with the recycling issue, said spokesman Tom Mueller. The company’s wind farms, which include four in Texas, are still young, he said. However, BP did replace turbines at an older wind farm near Palm Springs, Calif., in 2008. Instead of disposing of the turbines, the company put them up for auction and saw robust demand for the equipment, Mueller said.

Mostly, though, the industry hasn’t discussed the future of North America’s wind turbines and whether they will be recycled or end up populating landfills, said Roby Roberts, a spokesman for Madrid-based EDP Renewables, which owns Houston’s Horizon Wind Energy.

“Our oldest project is 10 years old. It’s just so long term to look at it – it’s at least 15 years away. A lot of companies don’t just sit there planning for 15 years from now,” Roberts said. “I’m confident we’ll figure it out when the time comes.”

When the time arrives, there will be a lot of questions to answer and some massive pieces of wind turbines to dispose of, Shell’s Williams said.

“All of the wind companies are going to have to do it. We’re going to have to get rid of the blades in some fashion,” he said. “The company who can come up with a process of recycling the blade is going to have a pretty good business plan.”