By Sarah Lozanova, Renewable Energy Writer
The energy mix in the United States has shifted significantly in recent years. Wind and solar energy capacity has skyrocketed and continues on an upward trend. Wind energy generated 7% of the total electricity in the United States in 2019. Since 2008, the use of coal-fired power plants has declined, as the use of renewable energy and natural gas has increased. Wind energy is an excellent way to reduce carbon emissions, but what happens when the wind turbine blades wear out? Is there a looming waste disposal issue?
Looming Waste Management Issues
The design life of wind turbines is about 20 to 25 years. The longest wind turbine blade to date is 350 feet, almost the length of a football field. Although certain parts of wind turbines can be relatively easily recycled, others are not designed for recyclability. In particular, wind turbine blades present the biggest waste management challenge, but researchers from the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in partnership with Arkema Inc. are making progress in this area.
Most wind turbine blades are currently constructed with composite material infused with a thermoset resin, which makes them highly durable to withstand storms and the elements. Unfortunately, thermoset plastics are almost impossible to recycle, so the blades do not have much scrap value and are not very appealing to recyclers. Therefore, many spent turbine blades are piling up in landfills, although some reinforced plastic blades are downcycled into cement products.
Promising Turbine Blade Research
The good news is that researchers have developed a blade out of thermoplastic resin (instead of thermoset resin) that is low-cost, lightweight, and seems to be recyclable. If the new blade also proves to be durable, this could be a gamechanger for the offshore and onshore wind industry. Lower costs also could help boost wind energy deployment, reducing the use of fossil fuels. A lightweight blade is easier to transport and uses less fuel. It also seems easier to recycle and uses less energy in the manufacturing process. These are all wins for the environment and the wind energy industry.
“With thermoset resin systems, it’s almost like when you fry an egg. You can’t reverse that,” said Derek Berry, a senior engineer at NREL in a press release. “But with a thermoplastic resin system, you can make a blade out of it. You heat it to a certain temperature, and it melts back down. You can get the liquid resin back and reuse that.” This means that the blades could be recycled instead of downcycled into lower-value goods.
So far, the thermoplastic resin blade durability looks promising. “The thermoplastic material absorbs more energy from loads on the blades due to the wind, which can reduce the wear and tear from these loads to the rest of the turbine system, which is a good thing,” said NREL researcher Robynne Murray.
Although the research looks promising, progress will be slow. Most wind farms being constructed today will be decommissioned in a few decades. The benefits of recyclable blades are still decades away at best. The decommissioning of wind farms and the associated environmental impact has largely been a blind spot for the industry. Hopefully, recent advances will help make wind power even greener. Despite the waste issue, wind power is still one of the most sustainable sources of energy.
By Sarah Lozanova, Clean Energy Writer
Despite serving a valuable purpose to us all, tech companies have been criticized for years for their exorbitant energy consumption. Data centers are the backbone of the internet and keeping all that information just a click away requires a lot of electricity.
A transition to renewable sources is underway, which cloud users can encourage by choosing their online service providers that source clean energy.
The ‘Dirty Cloud’
Data centers use up to 3 percent of all U.S. electricity and the information technology sector is responsible for 7 percent of global electricity consumption. The term “dirty cloud” was even coined to refer to the coal and other high-emissions fuel sources that power cloud computing. Global internet traffic has tripled in the last four years and it is anticipated to triple again by 2022, according to the International Energy Association.
The IT sector isn’t keeping up with its rapid growth,” says Gary Cook, the senior corporate campaigner on the Climate & Energy for Greenpeace. “More companies are making renewable energy commitments but energy demand growth by the industry is outstripping their renewable energy growth. This is an urgent issue to address the use of fossil fuels given the climate crisis.”
Since 2009, Greenpeace has been putting pressure on some of the more polluting tech companies while praising greener ones. When examining the energy footprint of tech companies, some clearly lead the way in the corporate use of renewable energy deployment, energy transparency, advocacy, and energy efficiency innovations.
Greening the Cloud with Renewable Energy
Google is leading the clean-energy revolution like no other company. It has invested in 22 renewable energy projects to date. In fact, Google is the biggest corporate purchaser globally of renewable energy, with a hand in utility-scale wind and solar projects that span the globe. Google has a goal to power 100 percent of its operations from renewable energy, and it is well on its way.
“We’re really trying to lead this transition to a cleaner energy economy,” said Michael Terrell, principal for energy and infrastructure at Google. “It’s transforming anyone who touches the energy space. It’s not just about data centers or tech companies.”
The Google approach to renewable energy is not unlike how many utilities purchase power. It often enters into power purchase agreements: long-term financial agreements, typically with wind farms, to buy power. The projects that Google has been involved with span the globe, including in Sweden, Iowa, Oklahoma and California, along with a recent $12 million investment in the largest solar energy project in South Africa.
Freelance renewable energy writer