Experts say an end-of-life plan is needed for wind turbine blades. 

A new study says tens of thousands of wind turbine blades will end up in Australian landfill by the end of the decade unless end-of-life programs are established soon.

Recycling wind turbine blades is an extremely challenging task, as they are made of either carbon fibre or glass fibre composite material, both of which are expensive to break down, with the recovered materials having minimal market value.

“The same features that make these blades cost-effective and reliable for use in commercial wind turbines make them very difficult to recycle in a cost-effective fashion,” says Professor Peter Majewski from the University of South Australia.

“As it is so expensive to recycle them, and the recovered materials are worth so little, it is not realistic to expect a market-based recycling solution to emerge, so policymakers need to step in now and plan what we’re going to do with all these blades that will come offline in the next few years.”

Wind turbine blades are often dumped in landfill, but this practice has been banned in some European countries. Still, estimates suggest there will be more than 40 million tons of blade waste worldwide by 2050, requiring alternative solutions.

There is some limited potential for reuse of blades in niche construction settings and a small market for some of the reclaimed materials, but it is likely the costs of disposing of the blades in a sustainable fashion will need to be factored into their production and running costs, according to Prof Majewski. 

“Our research indicates the most likely viable option is a product stewardship or extended producer responsibility approach, where the cost of recycling the blades is factored into either the cost of their manufacture or the cost of their operation,” he said.

“So, drawing on the experience of similar programs for other products, either the manufacturer must take responsibility for what needs to be done with the blades at the end of their useful life, or the wind farm operators must provide end-of-life solutions as part of the planning approval process for their business operations.”

While self-regulation may offer one solution, Prof Majewski believes the long lifespan and high cost of blades means official frameworks are required to ensure transition of responsibility where necessary.

“If manufacturers disappear, or wind farms go broke, we need to ensure processes are still in place for the turbine blades to be disposed of properly,” he says.

Prof Majewski says it is likely consumers will ultimately bear some of the end-of-life cost through energy tariffs, but he believes market competition between energy producers should help to minimise the impact of that on the public.

“There will be some cost to this for everyone involved, but we have to accept that as part of the cost of producing energy in this way,” Prof Majewski says. “Without such solutions, energy options like wind and solar may prove to be no more sustainable than the old technologies they are aiming to replace.”