This week Bloomberg Energy 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 over 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?

This problem isn’t news to John Locke Foundation readers. We discussed the huge problem of turbine blade disposal in January. In December research intern Nick Wilkinson wrote about wind power’s noise pollution, visual pollution, disruptions of aircraft and military radar, and turbine blade waste. We’ve also recently discussed two Harvard studies that found transitioning to wind and solar would require so much land that it would actually contribute to global warming.

JLF readers have also read about studies showing that transitioning away from nuclear energy costs lives, that transitioning into more expensive energy costs lives, and that because of intermittency issues, wind and solar are actually the most costly ways of reducing emissions. We have also discussed the problem of wind power “takings.” That’s the euphemism used by the Obama-era U.S. Fish and Wildlife Division to refer to eagles slaughtered by wind turbines, as the division approved permits for such slaughter for 30 years, up from five.

What makes disposing of 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 can’t be hauled away without being cut into pieces right there on site
  • Cutting them requires very expensive, specialized equipment
  • It takes a tractor-trailer to haul off a blade once it’s been cut into pieces
  • It takes one tractor-trailer per blade
  • So much trucking contributes to emissions
  • Over the next four year, the U.S. will be removing 8,000 blades per year
  • Future years will see much greater number of blade retirements, as five times as many turbines are being installed now than before
  • The European Union requires blades to be burned in kilns or power plants
  • Burning them contributes to emissions
  • They can’t be recycled
  • They’re made of resin and fiberglass and currently can’t be repurposed
  • They’re made to withstand hurricane-force winds — so 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 very expensive
  • In the next 20 years, the U.S. will have over 720,000 tons of waste blade material
  • Studies project increased global warming from wind power’s land-use requirements
  • Those studies don’t account for the additional land that would be needed for landfills for wind turbine blade disposal
  • Wind turbine blades are “forever waste”

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

It is reminiscent of the negative community and environmental impacts of solar panel disposal. Carolina Journal has reported for years about chemical waste components from used solar panels, including such things as gallium arsenide, tellurium, silver, crystalline silicon, lead, and also GenX and related compounds in solar panel components.

Dangerous waste underscores the need for decommissioning and financial assurance

It is for these reasons that JLF has written for years about the prudent and reasonable policy of decommissioning and reclamation bonds for solar and wind facilities. It is something that was added to House Bill 589 in 2017, a significant electricity reform and compromise bill, but the solar lobby succeeded in having that section removed.

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 Barack Obama required full reclamation bonding for solar and wind energy projects on public lands.

Fortunately, last year the General Assembly passed decommissioning for solar and wind facilities. HB 329 requires the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) to come up with rules for the decommissioning of solar and wind power plants by January 1, 2022. 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?

Watch out that special interests don’t capture the process

The key to EMC drawing up proper regulations governing decommissioning and reclamation 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.

The bill requires EMC to “establish a stakeholder process for development of the regulatory program.” The problem there is, in practice the reliance on “stakeholders” is an invitation to regulatory capture.

The term “stakeholder” is misleading. If you have a business interest is in the regulated industry, you’re considered a stakeholder. If you’re an ordinary person going about your daily business living and breathing the air and drinking the water and paying taxes and utility bills, you’re not:

Politically speaking, the citizens themselves — though they have the most at stake — aren’t thought of as stakeholders. In Lincoln’s memorable description, the American system is “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” On the other hand, stakeholders tend to be of the lobbies, by the politicians, for the special interests.

Even if there is a consumer advocate involved, their single voice is given equal weight to the chorus of all the many other, lesser stakeholders involved. If democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for lunch, then regulation via “stakeholders” is a wolf, a coyote, a lion, a jackal, and a lamb choosing whose constituency bears which costs of providing dinner.

Last year, for example, Gov. Roy Cooper’s Department of Environmental Quality identified 164 “stakeholders” in Cooper’s “Clean Energy Plan.” These were “experts and key stakeholders with a vested interest in clean energy.” It took two pages to list them all.

Despite all that, only 7 percent of those lesser stakeholders considered Affordability in electricity a “value to prioritize.” C’mon. You can bet that ordinary people have a radically different opinion on the need for affordable electricity than those “key stakeholders”!

Legislators need to be wary of what ideas come from this stakeholder process. The cronies and special interests have a vested interest in trying to avoid — or barring that, downplay — standard environmental cleanup and restoration of land used for industrial purposes. They’ve beat back decommissioning and reclamation before. The elected representatives of the people will have to keep their focus on which stakeholders they represent.

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