Company plans to grind wind turbine blades near Earlham

By: - November 22, 2021 4:59 pm

Remnants of old wind turbine blades on a city-owned site north of Earlham alarmed residents. (Photo by Heather Stancil)

A Bondurant company plans to use large wood chippers to grind old wind turbine blades into bits to recycle them, but its work site near Earlham has drawn scorn and pushback from anti-turbine residents in Madison County.

Renewablade has tested the grinding process on three blades at a site near U.S. Interstate Highway 80 about two miles northeast of Earlham, where another company uses the chippers to make mulch from trees.

“It was successful, absolutely,” said Brian Meng, manager of Renewablade.

He said the blades can be broken into pieces and fed into the chippers. The result: small chunks of fiberglass that can be used in concrete and other products.

Others have struggled to find a way to dispose of the blades, which are made of reinforced fiberglass, often exceed 100 feet in length and are difficult to crush. Notably, a Washington state-based company accumulated about 1,300 blades at three sites in Iowa in recent years, where they have languished despite orders from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to dispose of them.

The fear of a similar turbine graveyard near Earlham — along with environmental concerns about the recycling process — led some residents to attempt to block the plans.

“If they can’t make it work then they just walk off the property and leave it,” said Heather Stancil, an Earlham resident who won election last year to the Madison County Board of Supervisors on an anti-wind-turbine platform. “I don’t want to be stuck with hundreds of thousands of dollars of a cleanup bill.”

The board is the target of a MidAmerican Energy lawsuit over a new county ordinance that Stancil supported late last year that effectively bans new wind farms. MidAmerican was poised to erect 52 new wind turbines and argues the ordinance imperils its existing turbines in the county.

“We’re fighting the turbines,” Stancil said. “The folks in this area are very aware of this stuff. They’re very sensitive to it.”

Stancil and members of the Resident Rights Coalition of Madison County say the turbines are unsightly, noisy and cause physical and mental health problems.

Stancil learned of Renewablade’s recycling attempts last month and went to the property, which is owned by the city of Earlham but is located on the southern edge of Dallas County and leased to J. Pettiecord Inc., an affiliate of Renewablade. Stancil raised alarm with the city, county, DNR and Iowa Attorney General’s Office, in part because Renewablade was in talks with MidAmerican to potentially take possession of about 500 old turbine blades. Geoff Greenwood, a MidAmerican spokesperson, said the companies did not forge a formal agreement.

Independently, the DNR had recently discovered the nascent recycling operation and temporarily halted it.

“To be honest, we don’t have a playbook for wind turbine recycling right now,” said Ted Petersen, environmental program supervisor for the DNR field office that oversees the area. “We told Renewablade to not do any more grinding on the property until we can figure out whether it needs to be regulated or not through an air quality permit.”

It’s unclear when that process will conclude. Petersen is primarily concerned with the dust that is generated by grinding the blades.

Last week, Renewablade told Earlham it won’t recycle the blades on the city’s property, and J. Pettiecord withdrew a request to Dallas County to rezone the land for industrial use.

“It probably would be a damn good business if you could figure out how to do it,” Dallas County Supervisor Mark Hanson said. “We don’t want a bunch of blades showing up that can’t be processed.”

Meng, of Renewablade, said he has no intention to pile and abandon a hoard of turbine blades. He has decades of experience in recycling and expects to erect a hoop building on a property adjacent to the city-owned site to process the blades starting next year.

“I recognized that we need to tackle this growing problem,” Meng said of turbine blade disposal. “In the beginning, they didn’t know what to do with them. Some landfills said, ‘No, we’re not even going to take them.’ The next best thing was to burn them. I said, ‘Let’s do some research.’”

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.

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