Bloomberg Energy this month issued an attention-grabbing report on a serious waste problem with wind turbines: Retired turbine blades are clogging up landfills.

This problem is only going to get worse, as Bloomberg reports, because right now the blades at the end of their lifespan are from wind power built more than a decade ago. There’s been a fivefold increase in installing wind turbines since, powered in large part by federal and state incentives and mandates. What are we going to do when all those turbine blades reach their end?

If you enjoy John Locke Foundation research and Carolina Journal reporting, you know wind power poses many ecological problems. It’s not just turbine blade waste, but also noise pollution, visual pollution, disruptions of military radar, eagle and other wildlife killings, and excessive land use.

What makes disposing wind turbine blades so bad for landfills and the environment? All these things:

  • They’re huge, from 100 feet long to the length of a football field.
  • They have to be cut into pieces on site using expensive, specialized equipment.
  • It takes a tractor-trailer to haul off a cut-up blade.
  • They can’t be recycled.
  • They’re made of resin and fiberglass and currently can’t be repurposed.
  • They can’t be crushed for efficient landfill storage.
  • Landfills don’t really have the space for them.
  • Obtaining permitting for new landfills is also expensive.
  • In the next 20 years, the U.S. will have more than 720,000 tons of waste blade material.
  • Wind turbine blades are “forever waste.”

In short, disposing of wind turbines is a significant problem, with negative impacts for communities and the environment.

The issue brings to mind the many community and ecological concerns posed by solar panels and components.

Used solar panels have many chemical waste components, including such things as gallium arsenide, tellurium, silver, crystalline silicon, lead, cadmium, and heavy earth materials. Solar facilities also requires an enormous expanse of land, many taking prime farmland, stressing the state’s agricultural ecosystem.

Also concerning is the presence of GenX and related compounds in solar panel components. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency confirmed in 2018 that GenX and related compounds are used to produce solar panels.

Solar panel waste is an especially important issue to solve for North Carolina given how many solar facilities we have. State mandates, tax credits, other incentives, and an especially solar-friendly interpretation of federal law governing utilities and renewable energy producers have made North Carolina second only to California in solar facilities.

According to JLF Senior Fellow Don van der Vaart, if you stacked all the solar panels currently in North Carolina on a football field, the stack would stand over 120 stories high. That’s taller than the Empire State Building. What kind of waste issues does all that pose?

Dangerous waste underscores the need for decommissioning and financial assurance

It is for those reasons that JLF has for years written about decommissioning and reclamation bonds for solar and wind facilities. The idea is to be able to restore the land to its previous use before the facilities were built.

Decommission and reclamation are standard environmental protection for other land uses. It’s so noncontroversial, in fact, that the Bureau of Land Management under President Obama required full reclamation bonding for solar and wind energy projects on public lands.

Nevertheless, until last year the renewable energy lobby had been successful at keeping decommissioning and reclamation for solar and wind facilities out of state law. But, in 2019, Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, took up the issue and, despite opposition from the renewable energy lobby, was able to get decommissioning for solar and wind facilities.

House Bill 329 requires the Environmental Management Commission to come up with rules for the decommissioning of solar and wind power plants by Jan. 1, 2022. The renewable lobby was able to prevent some reforms Newton sought: recycling of all renewable energy items, banning them from deposit in landfills, and automatically requiring solar and wind companies to post reclamation bonds.

Still, the law requires EMC to consider many factors in determining the rules for decommissioning, including such considerations as:

  • Do solar panels, batteries, or materials used in solar and wind facilities exhibit characteristics of hazardous waste?
  • Can they be reused, refurbished, recycled, safely deposited in landfills, or safely disposed as hazardous waste?
  • How much of the state’s landfill capacity will be taken up by solar cells, wind turbines, and batteries?
  • How do other states and the federal government regulate these issues, including decommissioning and financial assurance?
  • How much financial assurance should be required to ensure proper decommissioning?

The key to EMC drawing up proper regulations governing decommissioning and financial assurance of wind and solar facilities, however, is to make sure that the renewable energy lobby, solar and wind companies, and solar and wind advocates don’t capture this regulatory process. It’s too important.

The many community and ecological waste challenges posed by end-of-life wind turbine blades, solar panels, and batteries should impress regulators and policymakers of the need to get decommissioning and financial assurances right for North Carolina.

Jon Sanders is director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation.