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Utility backs push to recycle wind turbine blades in Wyoming

The state’s largest utility has stepped up to find ways to recycle old wind turbine blades instead of tossing them into a landfill.

PacifiCorp recently started transporting retired wind turbine blades from Wyoming out to Tennessee where researchers there are searching for ways to keep 100 tons of blades out of landfills. Though the blades make up only about 10% of a wind turbine’s total material, they are often made with fiberglass and can’t be recycled or easily repurposed.

That’s why a team of wind energy scientists, engineers, two utilities and a technology firm have come together to find a more sustainable solution.

Researchers at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville recently received funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to find ways to reuse decommissioned blades on a commercial scale in partnership with the tech company called Carbon Rivers, LLC. PacifiCorp and another utility operating in the Midwest called MidAmerican Energy Company, will provide the decommissioned blades

Together, the group is working to build a recycling facility capable of processing the full-scale commercial wind turbine blades. The hope is to take reclaimed glass fiber from the blades and transform the material into a variety of useful products, such as agriculture products, parts to make vehicles, sports equipment and more.

Recently, PacifiCorp upgraded an existing fleet of wind turbines near Medicine Bow in Wyoming with new technology and bigger blades, in a process known as “repowering.” The modernization of the Dunlap Wind Project will increase overall energy production and make the wind farm more efficient. But the upgrade means several old blades had to come down. Crews deinstalled the retired blades on the Dunlap Wind Project, and transported them to Carbon River’s facility in Knoxville for research purposes on Sept. 15.

As researchers search for ways to recycle wind turbine blades, the machines’ non-recyclable parts have been buried in stacks at a handful of landfills around the country, including in the Casper Regional Landfill.

While nearly 90 percent of wind turbines can typically be recycled, PacifiCorp paid the Casper landfill to dispose of its retired blades and motors. The rest of the machine is typically composed of steel, copper or other electronic materials, and can be recycled.

The sheer size of the blades, which can stretch over 100 feet long, and the potential environmental ramifications of disposing something that can’t decompose, have raised concerns among wind energy critics.

But according to a fact sheet shared by the Casper Regional Landfill, wind blades are some of the most inert and non-toxic material the landfill accepts. As of Sept. 16, the facility has disposed of 1,124 blades and has collected over $444,400 for doing so.

Meanwhile, wind energy companies will soon have the option of using decommissioned wind turbine blades as backfill material when reclaiming surface coal mine sites thanks to a new bill signed into law earlier this year. Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality gathered input on draft rules related to the new law back in August and plan to issue final rules soon.