The Curious Case of Old Wind Turbine Parts: Landfill Capacity, Blade Recycling, and Achieving a Circular Economy

Feb. 16, 2021

Researchers at DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have published an article in Resources, Conservation and Recycling that provides an important perspective on wind turbine waste, recyclability, and reuse.

By calculating the volume of wind turbine blades that will reach the end of their 20-year lifespan in each state by 2050 and comparing this to remaining landfill capacity, the researchers determined that if not recycled or reused, cumulative blade waste would use about 1% of remaining U.S. landfill capacity volume, or 0.2% of landfill mass by 2050. While this represents a small portion of landfill capacity, especially relative to total waste produced in the United States, reducing waste volume is not the only motivation for adopting alternative materials and sustainable end-of-life processes for wind turbine blades. A circular economy ensures that we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them while in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of their service life for use in other contexts. It also reduces the need for virgin materials to build these machines, further reducing environmental impact.

NREL and other DOE national laboratories are researching how changes in turbine design and materials can lead to an improved circular economy for wind turbine materials. For example, using thermoplastic resins—instead of traditional thermoset resins—can improve blade recyclability while enabling longer, lighter-weight, and lower-cost blades.