What do you do with old wind turbine blades? The Mississippi River facility recycles it. | local work

Louisiana, Missouri – Several times a day and every day of the week, large trucks roll into a facility on the outskirts of a northern Missouri River town, carrying tons of precious cargo: giant sections of old wind turbine blades that have come to the end of their lives.

The huge blades were intended for landfills. But the unusual recycling facility here now saves them from the garbage heap and uses them instead to make cement.

Its owner, Paris-based global water, waste and energy company Veolia, says business from wind farms is in the early days of a thriving new business line. Wind energy is expanding. Wind farms replace early turbine blades with newer models. The company said “blade reuse” is now the most important growth area for Veolia’s waste business.

The Louisiana facility already has plans to expand, and expects to double its number of employees over the next two years.

Company leaders could not have envisioned this much, until recently. “Honestly, I had no idea windmill blades were a problem,” Bob Cappadona, Veolia North America president and CEO of Environmental Solutions and Services, said last week during a visit to the plant.

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That day, a truck drove off a wind farm in Massena, Iowa. The back of the platform was weighted with a blade – it was cut in half, its hollow is visible.

The blades are typically 10 to 20 years old and originally 120 feet long, although some extend as much as 150 feet. It’s largely glass fibers – which contain silica – and also includes things like balsa wood, used as the internal framing structure inside the blades.

Workers first weigh the blades, weighing 6-7 tons per load.

Then the dramatic transformation begins: the blades are powered by “paper shredders”, which gradually turn them into a pile of faded sawdust.

It’s more complicated than it sounds, Cappadona said. He said: “The silica in the blade grinds everything you cut with it.”

The ingredients must also reach a level of purity suitable for them to be incinerated – because the next stop is the cement kiln. There, the ground material serves a dual purpose: the silica becomes the fiberglass strands of the blades Main ingredient in cementwhile other components — such as wood chips — help fuel the furnaces, which reach 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cappadona said the company’s new focus on turbine blades was spurred by a phone call two years ago — one he did in practice at first.

General Electric – a major producer of wind turbine parts – called Cappadona asks how to handle old turbine blades. GE was sending the blades to the landfill, but wondered if Veolia could locate an alternative.

“You can just make a lot of park benches out of it,” Cappadona said, referring to one fate of certain types of recycled materials. “We needed to do some real recycling.”

The cement industry has emerged as a logical model: thirsty for raw materials and energy, and increasingly aims to reduce them Large carbon footprint.

Cappadona said availability of silica was the main thing that piqued the interest of cement companies. But as an added bonus, burning the rest of the shredder blades provides enough energy to help the kilns reduce the use of traditional fuels, such as coal. Veolia says that using material from repurposed blades can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cement production by 27%.

It now has a four-year agreement with GE, and it’s also taking blades from other customers, both near and far — from regional wind energy giants like Iowa, but also from Texas, Dakota, Oregon and more.

Cappadona did not disclose which specific cement producers buy the final product. “A little of it stays local,” he said — an unsurprising fate, since Missouri is the nation’s No. 2 state for the cement industry.

In Louisiana, three to five bladed trucks arrive daily. Cappadona said the site has long dealt with other industrial recycling, such as medical waste, but has now reused nearly 2,000 blades in about two years.

The facility is the only Veolia in the country that processes wind turbine blades, and Cappadona said there isn’t much competition. Veolia described its Louisiana operation as “the first program of its kind in the United States.”

Workers say recycling the blades has significantly increased the workload at the facility, which employs about 25 people.

“There are a lot of these things,” said Mike Collard, a COO who has worked there since 2017. (Veolia acquired the site in 2019).

“We are just beginning to see the end of blade life,” he added. He expects demand to rise in the foreseeable future.

The company has the same outlook. Cappadona said Veolia hopes to set up similar operations in different parts of the country.

At the same time, the company must constantly recalibrate its process, to account for changes to turbine blades as technology and production methods are refined and changed.

This almost continuous development is happening in tandem with the ongoing search for other ways to reuse blades and their component materials.

“We’ve invested millions of dollars in what we do,” Cappadona said. “It’s kind of a niche thing in a big company, but there’s an opportunity to do more.”