LOUISIANA, Mo. — Several times a day and every day of the week, large trucks pull into a facility on the outskirts of this northern Missouri river town, lugging tons of precious cargo: giant sections of old wind turbine blades that have reached the end of their lives.
The enormous blades used to be destined for landfills. But an unusual recycling facility here is now sparing them from the garbage heap and using them, instead, to make cement.
Its owner, the global, Paris-based water, waste and energy company Veolia, says the work from wind farms is in the early days of a booming new line of business. Wind energy is expanding. Wind farms are swapping out early turbine blades for newer models. And blade “repurposing” is now the hottest area of growth in Veolia’s waste business, the company said.
The Louisiana facility already has plans to expand, expecting to double its employees over the next couple years.
Company leaders didn’t envision as much, until recently. “Candidly, I had no idea that windmill blades were an issue,” Bob Cappadona, Veolia North America’s 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 rolled in from a wind farm in Massena, Iowa. The back of the rig was saddled with a blade—cut in two, its hollow cavity visible.
The blades are typically 10 to 20 years old and originally 120 feet long, though some extend up to 150 feet. They are largely fiberglass — which contains silica — and also include things like balsa wood, used as an interior framing structure within the blades.
Workers first weigh the blades, with 6 to 7 tons arriving per load.
Then the dramatic transformation begins: The blades are run through “shredders,” which gradually turn them into a heap of drab sawdust-like shavings.
It’s more complicated than it seems, Cappadona said. “Silica in the blade is grinding down whatever you cut in with,” he said.
And the components must also reach a level of purity that’s suitable for them to be burned — because the next stop is a cement kiln. There, the ground-up material will serve a dual purpose: The silica from the blades’ fiberglass strands becomes an essential ingredient in cement, while other components — like the bits of wood — help fuel the kilns, which reach up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit .
Cappadona said the company’s newfound emphasis on turbine blades was sparked by a phone call a couple years ago — one he practically rolled his eyes at, initially.
General Electric — a major producer of wind turbine parts — called Cappadona asking how to handle the old turbine blades. GE was sending the blades to the landfill, but wondered if Veolia could identify an alternative.
“You can only make so many park benches out of them,” said Cappadona, referencing one fate for certain kinds of recycled material. “We needed to do some real recycling.”
The cement industry emerged as a logical fit: hungry for raw materials and energy, and increasingly aimed at reducing its substantial carbon footprint.
Cappadona said that the availability of silica was the main thing to pique cement companies’ interest. But as an added bonus, burning the rest of the cut-up blades provides enough energy to help kilns trim use of traditional fuels, like coal. Using the material from the repurposed blades can decrease greenhouse gas emissions from cement production by 27%, Veolia says.
It now has a four-year agreement with GE, and also takes blades from other customers, near and far — from regional wind power juggernauts like Iowa, but also from Texas, the Dakotas, Oregon and more.
Cappadona did not disclose specific cement producers that buy the finished product. “Quite a bit of it stays local,” he said — an unsurprising fate, since Missouri is the nation’s No. 2 state for cement making.
In Louisiana, three to five blade-bearing trucks arrive daily. The site has long handled other industrial recycling, like medical waste, but has now repurposed almost 2,000 blades in about two years, said Cappadona.
The facility is Veolia’s only one in the nation that processes wind turbine blades, and Cappadona said that not much competition exists. Veolia all its processes in Louisiana as “the first program of its kind in the US”
Workers say recycling the blades has significantly increased the volume of work at the facility, which employs about 25 people.
“There are a lot of these things out there,” said Mike Collard, an operations manager who has worked there since 2017. (Veolia took ownership of the site in 2019.)
“We’re just now beginning to see the end of life for blades,” he added. He expects high demand for the foreseeable future.
The company has the same outlook. Veolia hopes to establish similar operations in different regions of the country, Cappadona said.
At the same time, the company must constantly recalibrate its processes, to account for changes to turbine blades as technology and production methods are refined and altered.
And that nearly continuous evolution takes place alongside an ongoing search for other ways to reuse the blades and their constituent materials.
“We’ve made a multimillion-dollar investment in what we’re doing,” said Cappadona. “It’s kind of a niche thing in a big company, but there’s an opportunity to do a lot more.”