The U.S. Department of Energy reports that although wind power accounts for just over 4 percent of domestic electrical generation, it comprises a third of all new electric capacity. Even with the freedom from coal or oil that wind power creates, a major component of the generating devices, the turbine blades, has its own carbon footprint that needs examining.
Some of the blades are as long as a football field, and the metal, fiberglass or carbon composites must be mined, refined, manufactured and transported, all consuming energy and creating materials that are difficult to recycle when they reach the end of their usefulness and are replaced. Christopher Niezrecki, a member of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell Wind Energy Research Group, estimates the United States will have as many as 170,000 wind turbines by 2030, creating more than 34,000 discarded blades each year.
The next generation of blade material may come from natural cellulose fibers and bio-based plastics derived from soybean, linseed and other vegetable oils, instead of oil-based polymers. A $1.9 million National Science Foundation grant is funding the research.