America’s energy future may be blowing in the wind. As the U.S. moves away from coal-fired electricity, wind power has been growing. The Energy Information Administration estimates that in 2017 wind power in the U.S. will grow another 11 percent.
But wind turbines don’t last forever, said Xcel Energy spokesperson Mark Stutz.
“Wind farms, at the end of the day, are equipment. And equipment wears out over time,” he said.
The lifespan of the average turbine is 20 to 25 years. While new wind farms are going up, America’s first generation of wind farms are reaching retirement age, like the Xcel Energy’s Ponnequin Wind Farm on the border of Colorado and Wyoming. The farm of 44 turbines recently retired at the average age of 18 years old. In October of 2016, Xcel Energy plans to dynamite the turbines and cart off the waste to a landfill.
Ponnequin spans government and private land in two states, which makes tearing it down tricky. Unlike coal mines, wind farms aren’t required to set aside funds for clean-up. Xcel Energy has promised to completely restore the land when Ponnequin comes down, but across the country, wind farm clean-up is loosely regulated by lease agreements and a patchwork of local rules. There are no binding federal regulations to mandate cleaning up after a wind farm.
And when the giant turbines come down, they can leave a lot of waste behind. The steel towers can be recycled, but the fiberglass blades typically end up in landfills.
“You have to realize that with renewable energy, it’s not free from impacts,” said Heather Schultz with the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming.
The state of Wyoming has decided to nip this problem in the bud. The Bureau of Land Management and Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality are working together to ensure that future wind farm projects are not abandoned. They have required that new wind farm projects set aside funds to tear down old turbines.
“So if somebody did walk away, we do have security in place to close that facility out,” said Brian Lovett with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. “All that is spelled out up front, even before the project begins construction.”