Green wind energy is earning something of a “problem-child black eye” as part of utilities’ efforts to improve efficiency.

The Des Moines Register reported demolition crews at a western Iowa wind farm operated by MidAmerican Energy are cutting 120-foot turbine blades into thirds, part of the utility’s efforts to “repower” nearly 110 turbines, updating existing towers with longer blades, new hubs and refurbished generators.

MidAmerican officials said that when the work is done the wind farm will generate nearly 20% more energy.

However, there are challenges that remain unresolved — challenges that could become more acute in the future.

MidAmerican’s retired blades, which will be hauled to the David City, Nebraska, landfill, are among hundreds that will sooner or later be relegated to landfill sites in Iowa and across the nation.

Daniel Laird, a U.S. Department of Energy researcher, told The Register that while most of a turbine can be recycled, disposing of the blades remains a challenge.

Wind energy generation will create an estimated 1 million tons of fiberglass and other composite waste, Laird, director of the National Wind Technology Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, said.

Laird’s group is working to develop new blade materials that will enable reuse.

Investor-owned Iowa utilities are investing heavily in wind energy as well as replacing blades to extend the life of older turbines.

Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that Iowa had 5,073 turbines last year, seven times as many than in 2004. MidAmerican Energy will have spent $11.6 billion on wind energy from 2004 through this year, and Alliant Energy is spending $2.4 billion to build wind farms in Iowa.

Kerri Johannsen, the Iowa Environmental Council’s energy program director, said more recycling solutions are needed, adding it’s not a reason to “turn away from wind energy — a solution that can help mitigate the most dangerous threats from climate change.”

Amie Davidson, an Iowa Department of Natural Resources solid waste supervisor, said landfills managers who once thought blades could be easily crushed and compacted, are finding that those assumptions were incorrect.

Bill Rowland, president of the Iowa Society of Solid Waste Operations, said a plan to deal with the old turbine blades was never developed.

Rowland makes a valid point. “There wasn’t a plan in place. How are we going to reduce the impact on landfills? One way or another, we have to deal with it as a state. They’ve been promoted. They’ve been built. In our opinion, there needs to be a way to handle the waste that’s derived from them.”

Iowa utilities currently produce 34% of the state’s electricity from wind, second only to Kansas at 36%. MidAmerican Energy has a goal to create as much energy from wind as its customers use over a year.

It’s a laudable goal but one that carries costs that must be dealt with. The time to begin addressing those costs is now.

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