AILSA CHANG, HOST:
For environmentalists, it's easy to support wind energy. It's renewable, but what happens once it's time to replace a wind turbine? As NET's Christina Stella reports, it's a complicated prospect - one that's not easy on the environment.
CHRISTINA STELLA, BYLINE: Across the country, dozens of the first wind farms are nearing their 20-year expiration date. That means hundreds of wind turbines will be taken down and discarded. Doing that is a big job. Each turbine is over 150,000 pounds of steel and carbon. Most parts of a wind turbine are recyclable, but their propeller-like blades have stumped wind companies for years. Cindy Langstrom, a landfill manager in Wyoming, says part of the problem is how turbine blades are built.
CINDY LANGSTROM: They're made out of an incredibly strong fiberglass. The company brought one in as a demo for us to try to crush, and actually, our crushing equipment is not big enough to crush them.
STELLA: A mix of resin and fiberglass makes blades strong but pliable like an airplane wing, so finding a way to process the blades is a challenge.
LANGSTROM: We've talked about cutting them into three different pieces because it made the rates way too high to rent the big crushing machines you see in mines. We just don't have that kind of equipment. It's too expensive to rent.
STELLA: On the Nebraska prairie in the town of Kimball, Rob Van Vleet is standing in the shadow of a wind turbine that's taller than the Statue of Liberty. His job is to scrap seven turbines left over from one of Nebraska's first wind farms - over 200,000 pounds of material.
ROB VAN VLEET: Taking things apart is difficult. It took a lot of energy to put it together. It's going to take a lot to take it apart. This job in particular - there are a hundred semi loads of material that need to be removed. That's very expensive to move.
STELLA: Smaller, older blades can be the length of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and many newer models are three times as long. Van Vleet says dealing with their size is a problem because some scrappers have to rent or build specialized trucks just to take the blades to a landfill. And to accommodate the volume of waste, landfills sometimes need to build extra space. That drives prices even higher for scrappers and puts landfills in a tight spot.
VAN VLEET: So if you're a small utility or municipality, let's say, and all of a sudden, hundreds of blades start to come to your landfill, you don't want to use up your capacity for your local municipal trash for wind turbine blades.
STELLA: Karl Englund is a research professor at Washington State University and an entrepreneur. He says U.S. wind companies looking to recycle blades don't have options right now because the industry here is still young.
KARL ENGLUND: In the States, we haven't had a lot of decommissioned wind farms. In places like Europe, where it's denser and land is at a premium, you're not allowed to throw things away, so you have to do it.
STELLA: Englund says he's developed a way to repurpose blades by grinding them up to make chocolate chip-size poly pellets that can be used to make things like plastic wood, pallets and piping. He works for a startup, Global Fiberglass Solutions, that opened its first processing facility in central Texas this year and has leased a second near Des Moines. Back in Nebraska, Rob Van Vleet also sees opportunity in trying to figure out how to recycle the enormous blades.
VAN VLEET: Out on the prairie, there's not very much scrap. The idea is to develop the next technology. Otherwise, I wouldn't be doing this. We lose money on every blade we haul.
STELLA: Last winter, he decided to buy them from the company he's scrapping them for so he could experiment on the leftover materials. As he tightens a blade to the bed of his truck, he's one step closer to finding a way to profit from wind power.
For NPR News, I'm Christina Stella.
CHANG: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focused on agriculture and rural issues.
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