Wind energy is arguably the future of renewable energy, but there’s something about it that really blows. The fast-growing industry has a dark, non-recyclable underbelly—the physical components of wind turbines are made from petroleum-based resins and end up rotting in landfills.
As more wind turbines are built, more used, football-field-sized turbine blades are being thrown out. To combat this wastefulness, the National Science Foundation has given the University of Massachusetts Lowell a $1.9 million grant to solve the wind industry’s giant problem by engineering biodegradable wind turbine blades.
Professor Christopher Niezrecki, of the UMass Lowell Wind Energy Research Group, will lead the research effort to construct these blades of the future. They plan on using “bio-based polymers,” such as vegetable oil, to construct their new turbines.
“One of the things we’re looking at is to replace petroleum-based resins with sustainable resins. We’re going to find a new material that has the same properties as the current ones,” said Niezrecki to TakePart.
One challenge is making sure that these eco-friendly blades can withstand harsh weather conditions, all while being competitively priced. Niezrecki added: “The objective is to have them be either the same cost or less. If they’re more expensive, the question is do they add so much value that people will use them instead? We have to make sure whatever we develop is cost effective. There are lots of challenges. It’s not an easy problem to solve.”
Creating biodegradable blades is all the more prudent given how quickly the wind industry is growing.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Wind Program has a goal to provide 20 percent of America’s electricity through wind power by 2030. Fourteen states have wind energy projects and six of those states receive over 10 percent of their electricity from wind power. This current wind energy set-up sequesters almost 79 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions and provides over 75,000 jobs.
Currently the United States has enough wind turbines to power 12 million homes, and that number continues to grow—and by 2030 Niezrecki estimates that the U.S. would be purging over 34,000 blades annually.
Considering that those blades usually end up either end up incinerated or in landfills, this does not look good for the ‘clean energy’ wind industry. Using biodegradable wind turbine blades would make the industry even more environmentally-friendly by eliminating waste from landfills.
The wind industry is here to stay, but hopefully the blades are not.
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Jenna Shapiro is a high school senior in New York City who is passionate about writing and environmental issues. She has previously worked with EcoLogic Solutions. In her free time she can be found reading, biking, or walking her adorable dogs!