Don Brunell

Don Brunell

Would you believe that in the future when a cement truck shows up to pour your foundation or patio, the mixture will likely contain ground-up wind turbine blades? 

As a part of new agreement between GE Renewable Energy and Veolia North America (VNA), old blades, consisting mostly of fiberglass, are shredded at a processing facility in Missouri and then shipped to cement plants across America where they replace coal, sand and clay in manufacturing.

Like the coronavirus vaccine, the new process was fast tracked.  

“Last summer, we completed a trial using a GE blade, and we were very happy with the results. This fall, we have processed more than 100 blades so far, and our customers have been very pleased with the product,” Veolia’s Bob Cappadona told Waste Dive.

More than 65 percent of the blade weight replaces raw materials that would otherwise be added to the kiln to create the cement, and about 28 percent of the blade weight provides energy for the chemical reaction that takes place in the kiln.

The environmental benefit is the new concoction results in a 27 percent net reduction in CO2 emissions and a 13 percent net reduction in water consumption during manufacturing.   

In the past, researchers were skeptical about recycling wind blades. For example, Principia Scientific International, a London-based group of scientists, concluded: “Basically, there is just too much plastic-composite-epoxy crapola that isn’t worth recycling. The wind turbine blades are a toxic amalgam of unique composites, fiberglass, epoxy, polyvinyl chloride foam, polyethylene terephthalate foam, balsa wood and polyurethane coatings.”

Thanks to good old American ingenuity, “repurposing” has become possible. GE calls it “circular economy for composite materials.”

While wind farms generate “greenhouse gas free” electricity, worn out and smaller obsolete blades have been cut up and hauled to landfills in Iowa, South Dakota and Wyoming for burial.   The problem has become overwhelming with more than 8,000 turbines to be removed in each of the next four years in the U.S. alone and it is growing worldwide. According to German fiberglass manufacturer Ahlstrom-Munksjö Dettingen, the wind industry will generate 50,000 tons of blade waste in 2020, but that will quadruple to 225,000 tons by 2034.

Wind energy is getting lots of attention now. It is an important part of President-elect Joe Biden’s goal of cutting U.S. carbon emissions to net zero “no later than 2050.”  California, Hawaii and Washington established targets of 100 percent renewable electricity by 2045. 

 To increase generation, many existing wind towers are being raised to accommodate bigger blades. For example, PacifiCorp is spending $200 million raising its 117 towers near Dayton from 200 to 250 feet tall. The project adds 35 percent to the site’s generating capacity. 

The good news is many of those giant blades are shipped to the Port of Vancouver (USA), off-loaded and trucked to sites across the Pacific Northwest, including Canada. 

Today, wind generates 7.3 percent of our nation’s electricity from more than 58,000 turbines.   Since 2005, we have constructed an estimated 3,000 wind towers a year and that pace is expected to accelerate.

Along with growing generating capacity, our country’s wind sector’s workforce is expanding.  Today, nationwide, it is 120,000 people of which 6,500 are Washington and Oregon.

For Washingtonians, the declining price of wind electricity is important. Homeowners and energy-intensive industries rely on low cost power. After hydro, wind is the lowest cost renewable.

Since 1980, wind energy costs have steadily dropped from over 55 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) to under three cents per kWh in the United States today. 

The promising innovation is now that recycling blades into cement is possible, a big hurdle to increased wind generation has been removed.

 

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Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

(4) comments

llhauer

I love to see stories about these kinds of creative and ingenious instances of the entrepreneurial spirit in action! Looking at the diverse "soup" of ingredients contained in wind blades, it gives me optimism that some brilliant up-and-coming entrepreneur will find a way to reuse all of the plastic garbage we produce - maybe as a new kind of wall insulation, or in some kind of fiberboard, or as an additive for resurfacing roads, or astroturf, hey, even in concrete? Whatever! There are billions to be made in the creative reuse of lots of the things we currently consider garbage. The wind blades are a great start.

Rohita

Thanks to Mr Brunell for sharing his news on this topic. With the Skookumchuck wind farm having just come online, we in Lewis County are now directly part of this energy revolution that he has championed so eloquently for many years. The spinning blades along the ridge-top on the northern edge of the county are a novelty for us. No one has begun yet to think about the maintenance and recycling of blades that will inevitably result from this new installation. And now we know there is a viable and growing solution for the old blades when the time comes.

Mr Brunell has also, over the years, championed the use of hydrogen fuel cells for a better, cleaner form of transportation. That has long seemed only someone's fantasy of the far future because of the assumption that hydrogen fuel production is too expensive and, even when done, is not really a savings on carbon emissions anyway. But once again, we will see that actually Lewis County will be directly involved in changing those skeptical criticisms into a positive reality. With the passage of SSB 5588 in 2019, and with the active support of the Centralia Coal Transition Board, we will soon (by the end of 2021, they predict) see the first renewable-hydrogen fuel pumping station in Washington state built at Centralia, along I-5 (https://cctgrants.com/category/news-articles/).

Who knew . . ., Lewis County is leading the way in renewable energy! Thanks to the Chronicle for carrying Mr Brunell's informative and inspiring articles.

HeavyHemi

"The spinning blades along the ridge-top on the northern edge of the county are a novelty for us. "

For those of us who used to wake up with pristine views of Rainier...

Anyone west of Chehalis on a hill, now sees a miles lone string of bright red flashing (in unison no less) lights across the face. The view is utterly ruined, period. I'm not against wind power at all. I don't recall any discussion over the destruction of the view of thousands of square miles and the destruction of property value. My million dollar view... Do I get a refund on my taxes, who do I sue for loss of value?

YourNeighbor

Funny thing, value. You may not value your view any longer, but I'll bet there are many, many people who'd pay well for it. On the positive side, you can see those lights best when you can see the mountain the poorest. Night time, perhaps.

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