Wind Turbine Disposal Issue Shows There’s No Free Renewables Lunch


Shocker! Getting rid of an old wind turbine is proving to be quite an issue and a high expense, showing renewables are neither free nor especially green.

In Minnesota, Xcel Energy estimates conservatively that it will cost $532,000 (in 2019 dollars) to decommission each of its wind turbines—a total cost of $71 million to decommission the 134 turbines in operation at its Noble facility. Decommissioning the Palmer’s Creek Wind facility in Chippewa County, Minnesota, is estimated to cost $7,385,822 for decommissioning the 18 wind turbines operating at that site, for a cost of $410,000 per turbine.

Restoration activities include the removal of all physical material and equipment related to the project to a depth of 48 inches. Most of the concrete foundations used to anchor the wind turbines, however, are as deep as 15 feet. The concrete bases are hard to fully remove, and the rotor blades contain glass and carbon fibers that give off dust and toxic gases.

wind turbine

While most (90 percent) of a turbine can be recycled or be sold to a wind farm in Asia or Africa, researchers estimate the United States will have more than 720,000 tons of blade material to dispose of over the next 20 years, a figure that does not include newer, taller higher-capacity wind turbines.

Decommissioning Blades

Wind turbine blades are made of a tough but pliable mix of resin and fiberglass—similar to what spaceship parts are made from. Decommissioned blades are difficult and expensive to transport. They can be anywhere from 100 to 300 feet long and must be cut up on-site before getting trucked away on specialized equipment to a landfill that may not have the capacity for the blades. Landfills that do have the capacity may not have equipment large enough to crush them. One such landfill cuts the blades into three pieces and stuffs the two smaller sections into the third, which is cheaper than renting stronger crushing machines.

One company has found a way to recycle blades by grinding them up to make small pellets that can be used for decking materials, pallets and piping. The company opened its first processing facility in central Texas this year and is leasing a second space near Des Moines, Iowa.

Given that the United States now has almost 100 gigawatts of wind capacity and that the life span of wind power is generally 20 years—much less than the traditional capacity it is replacing—finding technologies for recycling of the parts is becoming extremely important. (This shorter lifespan of this capital investment also means the replacement power needs to be recapitalized 2 to 3 times compared to power from conventional generation technologies, a little-discussed economic burden facing consumers in the future.)

Europe’s Decommissioning of Wind Turbines

In 2018, 421 megawatts of wind power were decommissioned in Europe—down from 683 megawatts in 2017. Of the turbines that were decommissioned in 2018, most were in Germany (249 megawatts), followed by the Netherlands (72 megawatts), Austria (29 megawatts), Greece (15.4 megawatts), Portugal (13.7 megawatts), Sweden (13.3 megawatts), Denmark (12.7 megawatts), France (12.6 megawatts), and Finland (3 megawatts).

Most of the decommissioning (407 megawatts) was in onshore wind. Out of the decommissioned 421 megawatts, a number of projects were repowered (repopulated with new turbines). The projects that were repowered in 2018 and a part of decommissioned capacity in 2017 resulted in 461 megawatts of repowered capacity. The majority of the repowered projects were in Germany, but repowering also occurred in Austria, France, Portugal, and Spain.

In Europe, land is at a premium, and waste management rules result in some companies selling older parts to customers in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Germany has over 28,000 wind turbines and by 2023 more than a third must be disposed of through decommissioning or sale to other countries.

New projects commit to set aside 2 to 3 percent of the capital cost each year for decommissioning, but it is unclear whether this amount is sufficient to cover the costs when the wind turbines are dismantled twenty or so years later. Costs of decommissioning depends on location—offshore or onshore—and the age of the technology as newer turbines are larger than the older models.

An offshore wind farm in the United Kingdom was decommissioned earlier this year. The Blyth offshore wind farm is a two-wind-turbine farm. One of the two wind turbines was recycled and reused for spare parts within the company’s onshore fleet, and the other was used for training purposes. The plant had a shorter life span than most commercial wind projects, operating for just 19 years. The company did not release the cost for dismantling Blyth, but indicated that it was similar to building the project. Re-powering of offshore wind farms is deemed unlikely because of the rapid evolution of the offshore turbine technology.


As with other aspects of renewable energy, the decommissioning of wind turbines was not planned out well in terms of their disposal when their useful life is over. Because wind turbines have a shorter life span than most other technologies, the dismantling of these units is already in progress in Europe and will soon be needed in the United States.

Due to the size of the units, landfills do not have the capacity or equipment to break down the huge rotor blades. Repowering is being done in Europe and some turbines are resold to developing nations. But, needless to say, it is expensive to decommission wind turbines and who pays when the funds are not sufficient to cover the expense is an issue.

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14 thoughts on “Wind Turbine Disposal Issue Shows There’s No Free Renewables Lunch

  1. The descent of climate-change activism into identity politics is a sign that it has lost vitality, writes @stevenfhayward

    While I have been a Clean Energy and Energy Efficiency advocate for the last 18 years, I have been worried about the stranded costs of much of the previous tranches of renewable technology? Going forward, there remains huge technology risk for renewables, both future product failure and future obsolescence of current technology. Just saying.

    By politicizing renewables, the renewable community will now have to figure out a way to survive without government largesse. Even in European Union, the trend is toward less government money for renewables as their economies adjust to a low growth and crumbling infrastructure future.

    “Causes that live by politics, die by politics.”

    Steven Hayward.

    • If these renewable or otherwise “green” alternatives were viable, they would not only survive, but thrive in any political climate without any government intervention.

      • First you’ve got to get EPA or the state regulator to permit an incinerator for such a purpose. This is not always easy. There’s money to be made in litigating such a venture.

  2. The big push for renewable energy was created by the global warming alarmists as an alternative albeit inefficient and not well thought out, plus the fact there is no emergency and what we have come to know today as the so-called science of climate change is nothing but vehicle to carry a socialist political globalist agenda.

    Solar and these wind turbines which I call pinwheel junkyards and a blight on the landscape can never replace what they refer to as fossil fuels, I believe the answer is the continued use of these fuels and increase reliance on nuclear power, the new reactors are much safer than the old technology and it is ignorance by activists that are keeping us from reaping the benefits of it.

  3. Some sectors when they begins to lose traction choose to throw darts at the competition rather then upping their game. The natural gas sector attains a new low with this one. What technology does not have a disposal problem until resources demand proper recycling?

    • Unfortunately, most so called “renewables” refuse to acknowledge any kind of disposal issue in the first place. The merely asked to be subsidized and the problem gets hidden instead of solved?
      True renewables like gas produced from wastewater treatment facilities/agricultural digesters and landfills can supplement and existing conventional gas distribution system an help save a disposal problem in the long run.

  4. Companies installing these blights on the environment promised sun shine and Rose’s. No problems. No birds or bats killed, land returned to beginning state. Now we are seeing the real deal. It has also been proven the turbines disrupt radar tracking of storms. As usual money talks and to hell with the people they effect.

    • And with raptor and bat populations (some listed as endangered) being decimated, these natural pest controls only will lead to the need for more man made pesticides that can eventually harm the environment. Talk about killing the goose that lays the golden eggs of prosperity.

  5. I am amazed by how incompetent most of these comments are to be honest.

    Love to hear how it is claimed decom of renewable projects are not planned out well! This is absolutely WRONG!

    Every renewable project I have ever been part of in 15 yrs has put up a removal bond for additional security. Project site remediation is not just planned but also executed unlike other non renewable projects when owner and operator can dance around it and delay it with many reasons.

    How about coal plant’s decom? How is that? Oh wait there is no plan at all for that until they are 60-70yrs old after 10 retrofits and they still cost more to operate just purely on LCOE base for example, than a decent wind farm or now recently solar farm so they need to be shut down. It is the same nonsense to say HV lines needed to be upgraded with high costs due to more windpower on the grid! WRONG! They had to be upgraded anyway because they were around 40-50-60yrs old anyway and the need for power has grown tremendously.

    And the bird killing issue is laughable! More birds are killed by raptors like cats, power lines, building and cars in TOTAL than due to wind turbine hits. You just do not see the dead bird bodies there, with wind turbines it is easy to notice the few dead birds around the tower. DOE studies showed and confirmed this and DOE is biased to nuclear and fossil power based solutions. Many international studies showed similar outcomes. In fact during wind farm design turbine locations are very restricted when endangered species nest are nearby

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