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Wind turbine blade recycling is underway in Iowa

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Wind turbine blade recycling is underway in Iowa

Jun 14, 2024 | 4:22 pm ET
By Jared Strong
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Wind turbine blade recycling is underway in Iowa
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REGEN Fiber is using a conveyor system to process wind turbine blades into small bits that can be incorporated into concrete and asphalt. (Photo courtesy of REGEN Fiber)

A subsidiary of Alliant Energy — a major wind energy producer in the state — seeks to succeed where other companies have failed: It wants to recycle old wind turbine blades that have sometimes languished in large piles in Iowa.

The blades are often made of fiberglass and resin, which yield strong yet flexible blades that help convert wind into electricity and are resistant to severe weather.

A tornado last month in Adams County destroyed several turbines, although that sort of damage is uncommon.

But the strength of the blades makes them tricky to discard when they have exceeded their typical 20-year lifespans or when companies replace them with more-efficient versions.

They have frequently been taken to landfills or incinerated — disposal methods that belie their environmentally friendly posture. But now, REGEN Fiber plans to recycle them in a new facility in Fairfax in northeast Iowa, at an initial rate of about 3,000 per year.

“There’s been a lot of people who have tried this, and there’s a lot of body bags out there of people who said, ‘Yeah, give me your blades. I’ll charge you money and then run off,’” said Jeff Woods, director of business development for Travero, an Alliant subsidiary and the parent company of REGEN.

Turbine graveyards

A notable example was Global Fiberglass Solutions, a Washington state company that began hoarding decommissioned blades at three Iowa cities starting in 2017.

The company was hired to recycle about 1,300 blades of MidAmerican Energy — the state’s top wind energy producer — but instead stockpiled them in Atlantic, Ellsworth and Newton.

Wind turbine blade recycling is underway in Iowa
Global Fiberglass Solutions accumulated about 400 old wind turbine blades near Ellsworth along U.S. Interstate 35. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The unsightly piles spawned investigations by the Iowa Utilities Board and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which enlisted the help of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.

Seven years later, the cleanup is poised for completion. The remaining blades in Newton are expected to be cut into pieces and hauled to Tennessee this summer, said Danielle Rogers, a spokesperson for the city of Newton.

It’s unclear what penalties the company might face in Iowa. An assistant attorney general who was assigned to litigate the issue was not available to comment for this article.

Last year, General Electric Company sued Global Fiberglass in federal court for failing to recycle about 5,000 blades GE had produced that were decommissioned in Iowa and Texas, including several hundred that went to the Newton stockpile. GE paid Global about $3,600 per blade — for a total of about $16.9 million — to process them into pellets to be used in other products, according to the lawsuit.

GE alleges Global Fiberglass did not have the capacity to process that volume of blades, and GE was forced to pay other companies about $5.5 million to dispose of the stockpiles, the lawsuit says.

It’s unclear when the lawsuit will conclude. GE seeks damages for what it paid the other companies, the premium prices it paid Global Fiberglass for recycling rather than landfill disposal, and for the reputational harm it has suffered.

Recycling begins in Fairfax

REGEN’s recycling process was developed over the past four years by a small team of people at the Des Moines company Polymer Crete, Woods said.

In 2021, REGEN filed for a patent for the process. The company takes in shredded bits of turbine blades and refines them further to be used in a variety of products, including as strengtheners in concrete and asphalt. The company expects to generate about 60 million pounds of it annually.

Wind turbine blade recycling is underway in Iowa
REGEN Fiber takes in shredded bits of turbine blades and refines them further to be used in a variety of products. (Photo courtesy of REGEN Fiber)

Photos of the equipment show the bits are processed by an enclosed conveyor system that breaks down the pieces. It has a dust control system that collects airborne debris.

The company has been hesitant to reveal the specifics of how the process works, but REGEN’s application filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office describes several devices that are part of the system. They include a scalper, hammer mill, vibratory screen and a granulator that “pulverizes the resulting fiber strand into micro-fibers that can be used as reinforcement fibers.”

Woods said turbine blades used by Alliant will be recycled at the facility when they are decommissioned, but that there is additional capacity to handle blades from other companies and room for expanded recycling in future years. The equipment is being operated by 10 employees, he said.

MidAmerican is replacing blades on 60 of its turbines this year, and REGEN will recycle them, said Geoff Greenwood, a MidAmerican spokesperson.

“The contractor we’ve retained will remove the blades, cut them into smaller pieces for transportation and then deliver them to REGEN Fiber for processing,” Greenwood said.

He said past companies MidAmerican has hired — aside from Global Fiberglass — have recycled the blades or used them for different purposes, such as benches, tables and planters.

“MidAmerican is committed to recycling or repurposing them,” Greenwood said. “Over the past few years we have seen some viable options emerge, and the industry is growing.”

Another company, Renewablade, has developed a recycling facility near Earlham that began operating this year, said Brian Meng, the company’s manager. Its process grinds full blades into pieces that are used to make concrete blocks.

“There’s plenty of blades to go around,” he said.