Vestas has a new way to keep wind turbine blades out of the dump

The Danish turbine manufacturer is among a growing group of companies working to repurpose and recycle turbine blades as wind energy expands.
By Maria Gallucci

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A large row of white wind turbines with blades out of sync, giving them a spiky appearance
Wind turbines near Palm Springs, California in May 2008 (David McNew/Getty Images)

Some 220,000 wind turbine blades are spinning over the United States alone, helping generate one of the nation’s cheapest and cleanest forms of electricity. The number of sky-high blades is set to multiply significantly in the coming years as the country installs more wind energy projects on farmland, prairies and, increasingly, in coastal waters.

The problem, however, is that all of those blades will eventually need to come down. Either they’ll reach the end of their useful life — which typically lasts 20 years — or they’ll suffer damage from ice storms, lightning or bird and bat strikes.

Right now, the most common way to deal with spent turbine parts is to hack them up and bury them in landfills. As wind development accelerates in the U.S. and globally, the companies that make, deploy and dispose of massive turbines — from major European turbine manufacturers to Midwest recycling firms — are under growing pressure from regulators and landfill-adjacent communities to find better solutions.

That’s not an easy task, as Canary Media has previously reported. One of the biggest barriers to recycling wind turbines is how the blades are made. Soft interior materials of foam and balsa wood are covered in a durable shell of lightweight glass or carbon fibers embedded in epoxy resins. What makes blades especially sturdy during their working life makes them particularly hard to break down at the end.

Last week, Danish turbine maker Vestas unveiled a new solution for this thorny problem, joining the growing number of businesses and research institutions looking to keep potentially billions of tons of blades out of the dump. Crucially, Vestas says its approach can be used to clean up existing blade waste, and it doesn’t require manufacturers to change their current designs or the composition of blade materials.

A row of large white wind turbines in a vast desert setting
Vestas turbines at a wind farm in Lake Turkana, Kenya (Vestas)

Once this new technology is implemented at scale, legacy blade material currently sitting in landfill — as well as blade material in active wind farms — can be disassembled and reused,” Lisa Ekstrand, vice president and head of sustainability at Vestas, said in a February 8 press release.

This signals a new era for the wind industry and accelerates our journey toward achieving circularity,” she added.

Vestas said the new approach involves a novel chemical process that can chemically break down epoxy resin into virgin-grade materials.” The Danish wind giant developed the process in collaboration with Aarhus University, Danish Technological Institute and the U.S. chemical manufacturer Olin Corporation. (Vestas did not respond to email requests seeking to discuss the process in deeper detail.)

In 2021, the four partners established a three-year initiative called the Circular Economy for Thermosets Epoxy Composites. The project aims to both increase the recyclability of turbine blades and boost the use of recycled materials in the production of new blades. Recycled resins could also potentially be used in building construction, auto manufacturing and other sectors.

workers next to a very large white wind turbine blade inside a large factory facility
Workers assemble a wind turbine blade at Siemens Gamesa's factory in Aalborg, Denmark.(Siemens Gamesa)

Another global wind giant, Siemens Gamesa, is developing its own chemical process for recycling turbine components.

The Spanish manufacturer’s method involves changing how new blades are constructed to make it easier to retrieve and reuse fibers later on. The company reconfigured the chemical structure that binds the epoxy resins to the glass or carbon fibers in the blade’s outer shell. The resin materials are virtually the same as those used in conventional blades, except the new chemical structure has a cleavage point.” This allows molecules to more easily break apart when dunked in a bath of acetic acid and heated to relatively mild temperatures.

The first of Siemens Gamesa’s RecyclableBlades was installed last July at RWE’s Kaskasi offshore wind farm in the North Sea.

As turbine makers tweak the chemistry of blade materials, a new U.S. business venture says it has developed a novel mechanical method for breaking down turbine parts without using any chemicals or heat.

Regen Fiber, a subsidiary of the Iowa-based logistics firm Travero, handles both decommissioned blades and scrap material provided by turbine manufacturers, all of which arrives at its facility preshredded. A proprietary process separates the glass fibers and fiber-reinforced polymers from the wood, foam and other blade materials. The newly freed fibers can be used to make new industrial products such as concrete, mortar and asphalt. (The company declined to discuss more specific details, citing the method’s patent-pending status.)

Travero began piloting the technique in 2021 at a facility in Des Moines, primarily turning blade scrap material into products for concrete companies. In January, the firm launched Regen Fiber and announced the construction of a new blade-recycling facility in Fairfax, Iowa, which is set to start commercial-scale operations for recycling decommissioned blades in the second half of this year.

Initially, Regen Fiber plans to process over 30,000 tons of shredded blade materials per year at its Fairfax facility — or roughly the equivalent of 3,000 turbine blades.

Jeff Woods, director of business development at Travero, said his team was inspired to launch the subsidiary by all the wind farms sprouting up across the central United States, particularly in the Upper Midwest, Oklahoma and Texas. The region’s landfills have also begun to swell with decommissioned blades, including the Lake Mills facility in Iowa, which is about a two-hour drive north of Travero’s Des Moines headquarters.

A lot of turbines have been put up, and a lot of them are coming to the end of their life,” Woods told Canary Media. Our desire was to come up with a solution that made the wind blade manufacturing and destruction process circular and renewable.”

Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.