“It’s just a hazard all the way around,” says Pamela Meyer, a resident of Sweetwater, Texas.
Sweetwater, Texas is home to the Sweetwater wind farm, the largest wind farm in the world when it was built in in 2007. The town’s inviting welcome sign is painted on a grounded turbine blade on the edge of town. Grounded blades elsewhere in Sweetwater invite unwelcome critters, and some serious concerns.
Pamela Meyer worries about children playing among the towering piles of discarded wind turbine blades that have been abandoned behind her home. The dump site worrying Pamela Meyer is just one example of the 30 acres spread throughout Sweetwater being used as wind turbine graveyards.
“It’s harboring rodents, snakes and all kinds of animals that shouldn’t be out there. It’s a health nuisance, it’s a public safety nuisance,” says Dana Schoening, assistant city manager for Operations in Sweetwater. Potential perils to adventurous children are not the only dangers posed by the towering piles of fiberglass.
The flow of federal incentives has led to an explosion of renewable energy projects, but a lack of disposal options has left a growing green garbage problem. Solar panels and wind turbines contain toxic and hazardous materials that are difficult to recycle, and early retirement of equipment is causing waste to accumulate almost as quickly as new generation is being deployed. Despite claims of cleanliness, “green” power has some dirty secrets.
The hoarding of junk blades across the country is the consequence of wind farm developers chasing the green—not energy, but money. Federal tax credits, the impetus for many wind energy projects, dry up after 10 years, but the flow of taxpayer dollars can continue when “repowering” turbines with new components. Fittingly, turbine blades with an expected 20 year life span are getting replaced soon after the 10 year mark. The 392 turbines of the Sweetwater wind farm have 1,176 blades spinning in the wind to create energy for customers in San Antonio and Austin—weather permitting of course. With an estimated 4,000 trash blades piled on properties around town, there are more discarded blades in Sweetwater then operating blades in the Sweetwater wind farm.
Wind turbines are manufactured to withstand extreme conditions, but wear and tear is inevitable. Turbine blades are coated in an epoxy resin that can erode at a rate of 137 pounds per year, per turbine, as the blades collide with rain, hail, birds, bats, and bugs. A third of this resin is comprised of Bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor particularly dangerous to children. Whatever exposure risk the erosion of operating turbines pose, it is unreasonable to assume that the risk diminishes as these blades are sawed apart and stored in towns like Sweetwater.
The monumental waste problem isn’t unique to wind power projects; solar panels have their own dirty secrets. Laden with heavy metals and neurotoxic materials—mined under exploitative conditions—these components can leach into ground water and soil if improperly discarded. Solar panels are considered hazardous waste, depending on where you try to trash them, equipment model, and condition of the panel when it is being disposed of. Various regulations have done nothing to streamline attempts to establish largescale recycling operations. Residential solar panel installations have their own tax incentives, driving up the number of connections, and conservative projections expect millions of tons in solar panel waste by 2050. The amount of electricity produced by a solar panel degrades over time, and as the efficiency and ROI of new models continue to improve, early retirement could lead to solar waste outweighing installations.
Green energy loses its luster when the byproducts clog landfills. Assuming a landfill even accepts this green garbage, turbine blades and solar panels would remain for centuries. Alternative solutions, like recycling, aren’t easy endeavors.
Global Fiberglass Solutions is one company attempting to recycle these blades. They acquire the discarded equipment and store them in places like Sweetwater as the first step of their novel recycling process. They hope to grind the fiberglass blades into useful pellets, but nothing has seemed to come of their attempts—except growing piles of discarded blades, lawsuits, and environmental fines.
Likewise, solar panels include materials that should incentivize recycling, but the process remains prohibitively costly; the $20-$30 cost of recycling a solar panel is steep compared to the $1-$2 it cost to dispose of it in a landfill. Many companies continue searching for efficient methods of refurbishing or recycling solar panels, but with 90% of solar panels ending up in landfills, there is much ground to cover.
The pursuit of renewable energy has unveiled a massive waste management issue that solves no environmental challenges. Texas is the energy capital of the world, we lead in the production of reliable and clean electricity. Still, reliable thermal generation is demonized with cries of air pollution, even though we are world leaders in clean air. Nuclear power, a reliable and carbon free source of generation, should be a panacea for the climate alarmist in their crusade against emissions. The question of waste is often the preventative factor, even though solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy. The question of waste seems to be an afterthought with the “green” energy projects, which were promised to be clean and cheap.
As towns like Sweetwater—and Texans like Pamela Meyer—have learned, promises made during the push for green energy have not produced. Renewable energy is not cheap, it is not reliable, and it certainly is not clean.