Skip Navigation

States, Localities Face High Wind Turbine Decommissioning Costs

December 17, 2019
By Duggan Flanakin

Wind turbine producers and wind energy facility operators are facing challenges finding ways to recycle or dispose of the materials from large wind turbines, especially the composite blades, as landfills are increasingly refusing to accept turbine blades.

With the boom in industrial wind facilities, waste managers worldwide are quickly learning wind turbine blade disposal is fraught with problems.

Wind turbine producers and wind energy facility operators are facing challenges finding ways to recycle or dispose of the materials from large wind turbines, especially the composite blades, as landfills are increasingly refusing to accept turbine blades.

Operators will have to dispose of 43 million metric tons of wind turbine blade waste worldwide by 2050, with China producing 40 percent of the waste, Europe 25 percent, the United States 16 percent, and the rest of the world 19 percent, according to a report in the April 2017 issue of Waste Management. Blade disposal is beginning to emerge as a significant problem, the report states.

Limited Access to Landfills

When environmental groups pushed use of wind power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from energy in order to fight purported climate change, they and the industry benefitting from government policies supporting wind energy development showed little comprehension of the waste problems industrial wind facilities would create.

Although in theory about 90 percent of a turbine’s parts can be recycled or sold, this is not true of the blades, which are made of a tough but flexible composite of resin, fiberglass, and other materials.

The blades are expensive to decommission and transport. They are up to 300 feet long, so operators must cut them into smaller pieces onsite before having them transported, using specialized equipment, to a landfill—when one can be found that is certified to accept them and will still do so.

Municipalities running certified landfills are increasingly rejecting wind turbine blades, even when they can charge double the amount per ton for accepting turbines, because they take up tremendous amounts of space, must be crushed at considerable expense, and take hundreds of years to break down.

A 2017 study published in the environmental and occupational health journal New Solutions found “the wood and other organic material present in the blades would also end up in landfills, potentially releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and other volatile organic compounds to the environment.” As a result, the study states, “the environmental consequences and health risks are so adverse that the authors warn that if the public learns of this rapidly burgeoning problem, they may be less inclined to favor wind power expansion.”

High Costs in Minnesota

Isaac Orr, a policy fellow at the Minnesota-based Center of the American Experiment, reported recently on the high cost of decommissioning 134 wind turbines at the Nobles Wind facility in Minnesota.

“Utility documents filed by Xcel Energy in 2009 provided what it considered a ‘conservative’ estimate of $532,000 per turbine for decommissioning each turbine; thus the total cost for decommissioning the Nobles facility will be $71 million,” Orr told Environment & Climate News. “Even then, the cleanup is hardly complete since Xcel, which owns the Nobles facility, has indicated upon decommissioning it will only remove physical material and equipment 48 inches, or four feet below the surface, yet the concrete base of each turbine extends 15 feet below the surface, and Xcel’s decommissioning plan is ambiguous concerning whether its cleanup will include removing all of the extensive system of cables laid to connect the turbines to the power substations.”

“The aging wind fleet poses questions about who will pay to take down the turbines and reclaim the land,” said Orr.

On the Hook for $30 Billion

Decommissioning costs vary slightly depending on the location. The Palmer’s Creek Wind facility in Chippewa County, Minnesota has estimated it would cost $7,385,822, or about $410,000 per turbine, to decommission the 18 wind turbines operating there.

Each of the existing 60,000 turbines in the United States and 350,000 worldwide will require decommissioning at the end of its useful life. At about half a million dollars per turbine, that adds up to approximately $30 billion for the decommissioning of existing turbines, and that does not include the decommissioning cost of the thousands of additional wind turbines planned for future construction in the United States and worldwide.

Shorter Life Than Promised

These costs may arrive sooner than expected, as hundreds of wind turbines have caught fire, malfunctioned beyond repair, or ceased to operate years before the end of their supposed productive lives, advertised by the industry as being approximately 25 years, says physicist John Droz Jr., executive director of the Alliance for Wise Energy Decisions (AWED).

“The proper life range for industrial wind turbines is 15 to 20 years,” said Droz. “No modern turbines have yet existed for 20 years, so 25 years is a positive speculation put on by wind lobbyists. They have never guaranteed any lifetime period.”

If states do not act, local governments will have to develop plans to address the health and safety concerns of wind turbine siting and operation and how turbine decommissioning will be handled and who will bear the costs, says Droz. Droz recommends communities adapt to their local circumstances his organization’s National Model Wind Ordinance to address facility development.

“Local communities need to include protective decommissioning terms and conditions, carefully spelled out, in an ordinance before constructing turbines or accepting turbine waste,” Droz said. “It is critical, to ensure all decommissioning costs are borne by the wind developer.”

Duggan Flanakin (dflanakin@gmail.com) writes from Austin, Texas.

Internet Info

“Wind Energy Facilities Model Legislation,” Alliance for Wise Energy Decisions, July 1, 2019: https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/wind-energy-facilities-model-legislation