Wind energy is not as green as it seems

12:00, March 2, 2022



Wind energy is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to generate energy in the world. But, as it turned out, not everything is so simple as it seems. Expired windmills, as it turns out, are one of the hardest types of trash to get rid of. In Texas, a whole cemetery has formed from the blades of windmills, and no one knows what to do with them after the end of their service life.

Directly across the street from the city cemetery in Sweetwater, Texas, is another cemetery where the dead were not buried. About 4,000 worn-out giant wind turbine blades are stacked as far as the eye can see, occupying most of the massive tomb. Windmill blades can be longer than a Boeing 747’s wing – about 97 meters – and weigh up to eight tons, so they are cut into three parts with a diamond-coated industrial saw. Wind turbine blades have been in Texas for five years, and given the recycling company hasn’t dealt with them yet, they’ll almost certainly be there for many more years — an ugly monument to the dirty little secret of “clean” energy.

Massive wind turbines are being built in increasing numbers, including in the UK, which is building the world’s largest offshore wind farm in the North Sea. But it does come with hidden environmental costs that are rarely mentioned: They only last 20-25 years. And the blades are made of fiberglass and resin that can withstand hurricane force winds but are light enough not easy to break, let alone recycle. Scientists are looking for ways to separate resin from fiberglass, or grind pieces of blades into tiny granules that can be used in other products, but they haven’t yet been able to find a recycling method that works on a large scale. Against the background of the push for recycling, it is no small irony that major renewables themselves cannot be replenished once they reach the end of their useful life. It is expected that by 2050 the world will need to dispose of two million tons of waste wind turbine blades each year.

In the UK, the volume already exceeds 100,000 tons per year. Currently, most decommissioned wind turbine blades are buried in landfills, where they would take centuries to decompose. Despite increasing pressure to end the practice, in the absence of an effective way to recycle it, the only alternative is Sweetwater’s wind turbine graveyard. Green energy advocates point out that turbines reduce carbon production by generating electricity from wind rather than oil or coal. They also note that the steel struts that support the blades, as well as smaller parts like wire, can be recycled. However, the question of what to do with used turbine blades will only get worse. The number of blades ending their useful lives is rising exponentially as those built during the wind power boom of the 1990s and 2000s fade away. They are getting time to increase efficiency, so there is more and more waste. Scientists at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory have warned that the world will face a “wave” of excess blades in the next few decades, numbering “hundreds of thousands, if not more”. Used wind turbine blades do not release toxins into the soil, as some claim, but they occupy vast areas of already overburdened landfills.

The world today shows no sign of solving the problem as more and more turbines are being built around the world. The International Energy Agency predicts that if we build ocean wind farms in all possible locations around the world, they will be able to independently produce more electricity than the world needs. The massive Dogger Bank wind farm under construction in the North Sea will be the largest green energy farm on the planet, with the capacity to power six million homes in the UK, according to its developer. Nolan County, of which Sweetwater is the capital, is home to the largest concentration of wind turbines in the United States, which in turn is the second largest wind turbine in the world after China. Of the 180,000 wind turbines operating in the United States, a quarter are in Texas, where the west of the state is flat and windy: an ideal location for wind farms. Sweetwater, with a population of 9,500, 350 kilometers west of Dallas, has described itself as the “wind capital of the United States” and has used turbine blades as a welcome sign on the main road into the city. But now his love for wind seems to have faded thanks to the ugly turbine graveyard.

It is owned by Global Fiberglass Solutions, an American recycler that got here in 2017. It bought an old aluminum smelter to recycle turbine blades into anything from wall panels and railroad ties to almost steel-strength concrete. The company announced that it had developed the world’s first method for breaking turbine blades into pellets and fibreboards. However, work on the main plant in Sweetwater has not yet started, and the UK branch has been closed. Locals suspect that GFS, which the wind companies have paid to get their used blades out of their hands, has no intention of recycling them at all. And it won’t be the first green recycling company to fail to deliver on its ambitious promises.

Don Lilly, CEO of GFS, says the delay is due to financial problems. But he added that they had found new investors and new financing and promised to start work “within the next 40 days”. However, the locals no longer believed the promises. Karen Hunt, director of the local Chamber of Commerce, Recycling Project, says of the turbine dump: “It’s part of our landscape. And it’s not attractive. However, in the United States, at least, there are huge unused areas. In the European Union, which borders More severe than can be buried in such sites, the blades are burned in power plants or in special pyrolysis furnaces to produce products such as glue and paint.However, this process requires a lot of energy, and when fiberglass is burned, pollutants are released, so they Not at all environmentally friendly. Meanwhile, a complete ban on burials has already been shut down. Last month, a European Parliament report called for an EU-wide ban on landfills using turbine blades by 2025. Wind energy workers expect that The UK follows suit. There are also more original experiences. So, in Denmark and Ireland, the blades are being made into bridges and canopies for bicycles, and in the Netherlands – slides and ramps for children – but that way they will only handle a small portion of the ride. Firat that has been turned off.

Solar panels, which contain photovoltaic cells to convert sunlight into electricity and also have a lifespan of up to 25 years, are another green recycling nightmare waiting to happen. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that by 2050, up to 78 million tons of solar panels will have reached the end of their lifespan, and another six million tons of PV waste will be generated each year in the world. Where to put all this is potentially a bigger headache than the turbine blades. At the same time, it is almost impossible to recover valuable materials such as silver and silicon used in solar panels today. Research shows that the cost of recovering materials outweighs the cost of recovering what can be reused by ten to one. In other words, if the processing cost is 10 rubles, you will get only 1 ruble back. In addition, unlike wind turbine blades, solar panels contain toxic substances such as lead, which can contaminate the earth as it decomposes, so burying it in landfills is a serious problem. Experts already say that humanity will never have a 100% environmentally friendly energy source. That may be true, but it’s little consolation for the residents of Sweetwater, whose city is choked with dead wind turbine bones.


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