Utility regulators might close investigation into wind turbine disposal

By: - August 17, 2022 5:53 pm

A company accumulated about 400 old wind turbine blades near Ellsworth. They were removed starting in late 2021. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Iowa Utilities Board is set to conclude its investigation into the disposal of old wind turbines now that a prominent blade stockpile has been removed and other state officials are monitoring the situation.

“In light of those circumstances that have occurred, staff will be recommending to the board that that docket be closed at this time,” Jon Tack, the IUB’s general counsel, told the three-member board this week.

The IUB began an investigation into the disposal of wind turbines in January 2020, after a company, Global Fiberglass Solutions, had been stockpiling old turbine blades at several locations in Iowa for years, most visibly along U.S. Highway 35 near Ellsworth.

“As these wind turbines age and new technology increases the generating capacity of each wind turbine, some wind turbines are being repowered with new blades and other equipment,” the IUB said at the time. “With the replacement of the original blades and other equipment, removal from the land where the wind turbines are located and disposal of the blades and other equipment has become an issue that requires a resolution.”

The term “repower” is used to represent significant component upgrades to a wind turbine or a complete replacement.

The IUB queried MidAmerican Energy Co. and Interstate Power and Light Co., a subsidiary of Alliant Energy, to determine their amounts of decommissioned turbine components, how the companies have disposed of the components, and how they might dispose of them in the future.

In February 2020, Interstate Power and Light said it had about 450 turbines and planned to expand later that year to nearly 600. It said it had not repowered any of its turbines and was seeking ways to recycle turbine blades.

MidAmerican reported it had a little more than 3,000 turbines in Iowa at that time, and that it had significantly overhauled nearly 800 of them. MidAmerican pays other companies to repower their turbines, and those companies are responsible for disposal of the old components, it said.

Wind turbine blades are notoriously difficult to bury at landfills or recycle — they are made of reinforced fiberglass, often exceed 100 feet in length and are difficult to crush.

Global Fiberglass Solutions, a Washington state-based company, accumulated about 1,300 blades at three sites in Iowa at Atlantic, Ellsworth and Newton.

The company was the subject of two administrative orders from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in December 2020 and April 2021 that sought to nudge Global Fiberglass into processing or removing the blades. The department referred the matter to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office in July 2021.

In late 2021, workers began cutting the Ellsworth blades — there were about 400 of them — and transporting them to Tennessee after MidAmerican got involved.

“I appreciate the efforts to clean up the pile of wind turbine blades at that exit,” IUB board member Josh Byrnes said during the board’s Tuesday meeting. “It does look much better.”

Jacob Larson, an assistant attorney general, said the Ellsworth cleanup finished early this year but that an investigation continues into the stockpiles in Atlantic and Newton. The Newton site was by far the largest with more than 800 blades.

Tack, the utilities board’s attorney, also noted that the DNR established a committee that is examining ways to dispose of turbines, among other issues related to renewable energy facilities. He said IUB staff are drafting a proposed order to close the board’s investigation.

An Iowa company says it is poised to recycle old turbine blades into retaining wall blocks after about a year of testing the process.

Renewablade has used large wood chippers to grind the blades to bits near Earlham, and it can now process a blade in about 45 minutes, said Brian Meng, manager of the company. He said the company has yet to obtain a large batch of leftover blades from a repowering project.

“We’re open for business,” he told Iowa Capital Dispatch.

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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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