By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Renewable energy being renewed.
That’s how one Wyoming artist sees his effort to bring together two very different concepts in a large-form art piece using the cast-off blades from decommissioned wind turbines.
“Windhenge” is a proposed modern art project that sculptor Chris Navarro has brought to city leaders in his community of Casper. He has based his concept on the Stonehenge monument in Great Britain, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
“In September 2020, I saw those blades that were being buried in the landfill in Casper,” Navarro told Cowboy State Daily. “I just thought, ‘What a waste of material.’ I mean, it just didn’t seem right. So, my artist mind kind of took off and started thinking of ways to repurpose it.”
Navarro reached out to NextEra Energy, which bills itself as one of America’s largest capital investors in wind energy infrastructure, with an idea to use its broken down wind turbine blades in his art project.
The company went for it.
“NextEra Energy, they said that when they decommission (blades), they’d be willing to ship them to Casper,” Navarro said.
Wind turbine blades are massive — in the U.S., they average about 164 feet, roughly the width of a football field. Most are made of fiberglass and carbon fiber, lightweight enough to be efficient, yet durable enough to stand up to storms. But that material is nearly impossible to recycle, so when windmills are decommissioned, the blades generally end up in landfills.
“(NextEra doesn’t) want to bury their blades,” Navarro said. “And they said that they’ve made a commitment that they’re going to try to do everything but bury the blades. Because recycling them, you can grind them up and heat them and do some other things, but it’s so expensive that a lot of these other companies are finding that it’s cheaper to just bury them.”
Only a handful of landfills in the U.S. accept the tens of thousands of blades that have aged beyond their usefulness. According to BloombergNEF, about 8,000 blades will be taken out of service in the next four years, and only places like Lake Mills, Iowa, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Casper have the capacity to bury the blades, which are placed 30 feet underground.
Start A Trend
Navarro hopes that by using the blades in a large-form art piece in Casper, he might start a trend.
“Once I build the first one, I think it’ll give me some legs,” he said. “Then I’ll be able to maybe promote it more around the country, and even the world. It’s a big problem in Europe, because they don’t have the facilities to bury these blades – and there’s a lot of wind power in Europe.”
Navarro has come up with five different design concepts for large-form art pieces using wind turbine blades. The one he has proposed to the Casper City Council, which would be the biggest piece he has ever worked on, is based on the Stonehenge monument.
“I would truck the blades, using cranes and heavy equipment to put them into position, and cement them into place,” Navarro said. “In fact, (NextEra) has a lot of damaged solar panels that they’re going to donate, and we’re going to put solar panels over the top of the Windhenge so it’ll do all the lighting for the sculpture.”
Navarro’s proposed piece isn’t the first attraction based on Stonehenge using alternative materials. Carhenge, in the Nebraska panhandle near the town of Alliance, attracts thousands of visitors each year, according to Navarro.
“Carhenge is based on Stonehenge, a replica using junked cars,” he said. “I talked to the city because I had some questions before I made my presentation to Casper, like, what’s the upkeep? What’s the maintenance? How many people does it bring? And they said they recorded 114,000 visitors last year.”
Epic Piece For Casper
Carter Napier, the Casper City Manager, said after Navarro’s presentation to the council in early June, he was directed to follow up on the plausibility of the project. He said the council’s main concerns involved the cost to the city, and making sure the piece to be built would be unique to Casper.
“If indeed this is going to be sort of an epic piece for the community, they weren’t really interested in being one of six or seven other pieces just like it throughout the country,” Napier told Cowboy State Daily. “If it has the potential to be an epic piece that brings folks from around the West or whatever, it would lose its epic nature and the possibility of bringing folks off the interstate in Casper, if there’s going to be one in Omaha, and New Mexico and Utah,” he said.
Navarro envisions the Windhenge sculpture as an interactive piece in which people could possibly hold events. It would certainly be large enough, as he said he’s planning for it to be 180 feet in diameter, taking up about one-half acre.
“We are investigating property options that perhaps the city owns, or property options that perhaps the city could jointly participate in with a private property owner, or with another agency owner,” said Napier. “We’re trying to cast a broad net to try to find the best, most suitable location for a piece of this size and stature, because it is a fairly sizable piece.”
Navarro and Napier both said that NextEra Energy has offered to take ownership of the sculpture once it is complete and be responsible for its upkeep.
“In this stage in the game, (NextEra) appears to be very comfortable with the idea of being the financial partner, or at least facilitating the finances necessary to make this project happen,” said Napier. “So it doesn’t appear at this point that the city of Casper would have any obligation or exposure as it relates to commissioning the work and providing the blades and those kinds of things.”
He said that the City would possibly be responsible for maintenance of a parking lot or other public access to the artwork unless a suitable location is found that already has that access or the funding partner is willing to foot that bill as well.
“I think once we’ve kind of come to a conclusion with due diligence, and the funding partner is happy with a proposal, that our next step would be to go to the council,” Napier said. “And if they give us the green light, I would suspect that construction would start in spring and we’d be well on our way.”
Navarro said he’s gotten some interest in other versions of his wind-turbine art pieces from other organizations around Casper.
“I did get a response from the director of the Platte River Trails Walkway,” he said. “They’re trying to put art along the walkway, and she said they’d be interested in maybe doing a smaller version of it. You know, not 120-foot blades, but maybe a third of the blades. The Platte River Trail walkway, it’s a bicycle trail through the city of Casper, so you’d be able to ride your bike through it.”
Navarro said if he can’t get his project built in Casper, he has some other options.
“I’ll probably go to Cheyenne and Laramie, because NextEra Energy has a working relationship with both the schools there,” he said. “They train their wind energy technicians at LCCC and at the University of Wyoming.”
Navarro said his interest in the project is now a compulsion.
“It kind of got a hold of me,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time on this, believe me, it hasn’t been profitable or anything like that. It’s something I believe in, I think it’s a good cause. I think it can have an impact on things, and I mean, everybody wants to make an impact with their work, and that’s what I’m hoping will happen.”