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Wind companies lack strategies for 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,’ not 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, 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.